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BARCELONA — Ernesto Valverde was delighted Lionel Messi’s midweek hat trick for Argentina ensured the Barcelona forward won’t have to travel to New Zealand next month for a World Cup qualifying playoff.

Argentina booked their place in Russia next summer with a 3-1 win against Ecuador but going into the game they were in danger of either having to go through a playoff to secure their place at the finals or missing out altogether.

However, Messi’s treble guaranteed direct qualification for the Albiceleste and secured both his and international teammate Javier Mascherano’s presence for Barca’s La Liga match against Sevilla in November.

“It would have been uncomfortable for us if [Argentina] had to go through a playoff,” Valverde said in a news conference on Friday. “I want all my players at the World Cup but I was a little worried about the playoff. It was a long journey to New Zealand and we may not have had [Messi] or Mascherano for the Sevilla game.

“So it’s good for Messi and it’s also good for us that he secured qualification in such a brilliant fashion.”

Asked to highlight Messi’s best quality, Valverde added: “His level of competitiveness. And his responsibility. He knows he can solve any game, he can fix things and he sets out to do so. He’s the best in the world and shows it in every game.

“When things are repeated time and time again, they stop being so surprising. What Messi did there, with Argentina, he does here all the time. I don’t think there are any doubts left, honestly.”

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi’s hat trick heroics on Tuesday ensured Argentina direct qualification to the World Cup.

Messi returned to Barcelona training on Friday following his exploits for his country and will be available for Saturday’s trip to Atletico Madrid’s new Wanda Metropolitano home.

Barca go into the match with seven wins from seven in La Liga. Atletico are also unbeaten in the league this season but a Blaugrana win would see them move nine points clear of Diego Simeone’s side.

But it’s the condition of the pitch which has made headlines going into the game, with Simeone telling Barca: “When you invite me to your house, I use your tablecloth, your dishes and your glasses…” Valverde responded by playing down concerns over the playing surface, saying Barca “will adapt to Atletico’s menu… crockery and all.”

The Barca coach will be without long-term absentees Ousmane Dembele and Rafinha, but he expects to have Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets available for selection.

Barca have denied that Suarez is due to have an imminent operation on a cyst on his knee, while Iniesta injured his hamstring against Las Palmas and Busquets returned from international duty with a knock.

“Suarez has had a small problem since preseason, the Super Cup, but he’s dealing with it well,” Valverde said. “We don’t plan on him being unavailable.”

An eighth successive win would see Barca set a record for their best-ever start to a league campaign, although there have been accusations that it’s a run which has been enabled by an easy run of fixtures.

“When you keep winning it always seems like the big challenge is coming and the past doesn’t matter,” Valverde countered.

“Atletico drew with Leganes in their last game. No game is easy. [Saturday] is a special game but we don’t think that the previous games didn’t count. I don’t want to talk like that.

“It’s an important game because it’s against Atletico. Historically, they’ve been hard-fought games and they have been hard to predict.

“The level of Atletico in recent years had made games against them doubly difficult. They are a team who will be competing for the title.”

Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.



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