BARCELONA, Spain (AP) If Lionel Messi listens to Real Betis and sits out another match, Barcelona will likely have to rely on Antoine Griezmann to finally get some points on the board.
Betis, which visits the Camp Nou on Sunday, responded to a tweet by Barcelona that Messi was back to practicing with the team for the first time since being injured in the preseason by saying: “Don’t rush, Leo. No need for you to force it!”
Barcelona couldn’t make up for Messi’s absence last weekend when its attack was held scoreless in a 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao.
That was the first time the two-time defending champions had lost a Spanish league opener in a decade. And after both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid won, the pressure is on.
Barcelona acquired Griezmann after triggering the 120 million euro ($133 million) buyout clause in his contract with rival Atletico. The France forward was supposed to be the fourth piece to an already world class attack featuring Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele. But Griezmann may be left with all the scoring responsibility in his competitive home debut.
Messi strained his right calf in the team’s first practice of the season on Aug. 5 and hasn’t played since. Although it is possible he will be back to face Betis, Suarez won’t be after he injured a right leg muscle in the first half at Bilbao. Dembele has also been ruled out for several weeks with a left thigh injury.
Philippe Coutinho, who could have helped out as an attacking player, is no longer with the team after being loaned out to Bayern Munich this week. Malcom, a Brazilian forward who played sparingly for Barcelona last season, was sold to Zenit St. Petersburg.
Griezmann had a lackluster match at Bilbao. His only good scoring chance at San Mames Stadium came in the final minutes with a header.
The Frenchman, however, is used to carrying a team on his back.
Griezmann was a consistent scorer for Atletico, tallying more than 20 goals a season for five consecutive years despite the team often not having another attacking threat to draw away some of the attention of opposing defenses.
The problem at Bilbao, he said, was simply “the ball didn’t go in.”
The other player who could make the most of the opportunity created by the injuries is 21-year-old Carles Perez, a member of Barcelona’s reserve team. He impressed in the preseason, even scoring two goals in a 2-0 win over Japanese club Vissel Kobe, where former Barcelona great Andres Iniesta now plays.
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde included Perez in Wednesday’s team practice.
Betis was the only team to beat Barcelona at its home stadium last season, outgunning the hosts 4-3.
Since then it has changed coaches, replacing the attack-minded Quique Setien with the more conservative Joan “Rubi” Ferrer, who led Espanyol to a Europa League berth. Barcelona also poached one of its top players, left back Junior Firpo.
Betis lost its Spanish league opener, falling 2-1 to Valladolid at home.
The last time Betis played Barcelona was in Seville in March. Messi scored three goals and received a standing ovation from the Betis fans.
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