BARCELONA — Ernesto Valverde says Lionel Messi is likely to be rested on Sunday when Barcelona host Real Sociedad in the final game of the La Liga season.
Messi didn’t play in last weekend’s loss to Levante, Barca’s first and only defeat in the league this season, but did feature for 15 minutes in a 3-1 friendly win against Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa on Wednesday.
However, Valverde explained that Messi’s participation in Johannesburg was due to a “contractual” obligation and that the Argentina forward is feeling the effects of a long season.
“Leo’s played a lot of games this season, including playing with slight injuries [at times],” the coach said in a news conference on Saturday.
“In this final stretch of the campaign, we feel it has been the right moment to rest him. He played the final 15 minutes the other day in South Africa because it was in the agreement for the friendly, nothing else. The idea is that he rests [against La Real].”
Messi, 30, has made 53 appearances for Barca in all competitions this season, scoring 45 goals.
With a domestic double already sewn up and the chances of an unbeaten league season dashed by Levante, there’s no need to ask him to play more minutes as he turns his attention to this summer’s World Cup with Argentina.
Andres Iniesta will be involved against Real Sociedad, though, as he plays his final game in Barcelona colours after 22 years at the club.
The midfielder will reveal his next destination next week — expected to be in either China or Japan — but before then will say goodbye to Barca’s fans at Camp Nou on Sunday, with a huge mosaic dedicated to him to be revealed before the match.
“Hopefully we can send Andres off with a win,” Valverde added. “For me, it means a lot to have had the chance to coach him this season. You can see what he means from the outside, but when you’re here you realise even more. You can touch it.
“It’s been an honour to coach him this season and to be able to enjoy him as a player — as his coach and not as a visiting coach!”
Replacing Iniesta is one of the tasks facing Barcelona this summer but Valverde says there is no chance of finding a direct substitute for the Spain international.
“We won’t find anyone with the same characteristics as Andres, let’s be realistic,” he said. “We have other players here, though, and it’s important to stay true to our style.
“The player [that comes in] will have to be different. Denis [Suarez], [Carles] Alena and [Philippe] Coutinho are all similar, maybe Coutinho attacks a bit more. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of looking for a replica [of Iniesta] because that’s not possible.”
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.