By Tim Hanlon
BARCELONA, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Neymar has been cleared to play in Barcelona's La Liga clash with Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, raising hopes he will be primed for their Champions League tie with Manchester City next week after being sidelined with an ankle injury.
"He has been training fine, feels okay and has looked strong," coach Gerardo Martino said at a news conference on Friday.
"He is now competing with the rest for a place. I don't like to talk about it as a test for him (against Rayo)."
The 22-year-old has not played since limping off against Getafe in mid-January, and Argentine Martino said it was important he got through the Rayo match before they started thinking about the City challenge on Tuesday.
"It is normal to talk about the Champions League game because it is the most even of the last 16. We are concentrating on tomorrow's game. It was a blow for us to lose the leadership and it was difficult for us to win it back."
It has been a challenging first season of adaption for Brazil forward Neymar, and Barca will now be hoping to get the best out of the him as the season reaches its climax.
He will return alongside a rejuvenated Lionel Messi in attack, whose two goals against Sevilla on Sunday helped Barcelona return to the top of La Liga, albeit on goal difference over Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
Messi was also on target on Wednesday as they secured a King's Cup final place against Real after overcoming Real Sociedad on aggregate, indicating he was returning to form after an injury-hampered season.
"I am happy to have the players available as over the season it has been difficult to have a situation like this. We have the players now and it is at an important time of the season," said Martino.
Midfielder Xavi would be rested against Rayo
"He is fine but he is not in the squad."
"Over the six or seven months so far we have been building to this point by having rotations and from now on it will be less so. The idea has been to have the players in good condition for the World Cup as well as for Barcelona."
Martino praised the possession-based tactics of Rayo coach Paco Jemez, although they remain in danger of relegation, sitting in 19th spot, four points off safety.
"He is very brave and I admire all those coaches that go out to play, even more so those with a squad that isn't the strongest individually. It is more than admirable to keep trying even when we are arriving at the end of the season." (Editing by Josh Reich)
- Sports & Recreation
- Gerardo Martino
- Rayo Vallecano
- Manchester City
- La Liga