Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde has said Ousmane Dembele will not be back for next weekend’s Clasico despite returning to training this week.
Dembele has not played since rupturing a tendon against Getafe in September, initially ruling him out for four months. However, the France forward has returned to training ahead of schedule, sparking reports that he could be available for the trip to Real Madrid on Dec. 23.
But Valverde said Dembele would not be back in action until January, stressing that there was no need to take risks with the club’s record signing.
“He has been doing a lot more with the group this week, but he hasn’t completed a full training session yet,” the coach told a news conference on Saturday.
“Next week we will increase his workload, but the plan is the same as before. January is when we hope he will come back.
“It would be premature — risky, even — to bring him back [early]. Our idea at the moment is to leave it until January.”
Before Barca’s trip to the Bernabeu for the season’s first Clasico, they host Deportivo La Coruna at the Camp Nou, and both Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano will return for the game on Sunday.
Captain Iniesta has missed Barca’s last two matches with a small calf problem but has been cleared to return this weekend, while Mascherano has not played since the middle of November when he injured his hamstring while on international duty with Argentina.
With Samuel Umtiti also sidelined with an injury, coach Ernesto Valverde has been forced to field Thomas Vermaelen alongside Gerard Pique. However, with Mascherano now available for selection again, Valverde will have to decide whether he continues with Vermaelen, who has done well in the last five games.
Barca are still without Umtiti, Rafinha and Ousmane Dembele through injury. Both Rafinha and Dembele are back in training but Valverde has urged caution, saying it would be a risk to rush them back before January.
Gerard Deulofeu is also out after straining ligaments in his knee in training on Friday, while Arda Turan, who has not featured in a competitive match this season, has once again been left out.
The Catalan side can extend their lead at the top of the table after second-placed Valencia were beaten 2-1 at Eibar on Saturday. They could also open up an 11-point advantage on Real Madrid, whose game against Leganes this weekend was postponed because of their participation in the Club World Cup.
Despite media focus drifting towards next Saturday, Valverde said the players had not been distracted by the looming Madrid clash.
“No, the Clasico is not affecting the players,” he added. “They’re worried about Sunday’s game. We know we have a week after to then think about the Clasico, so by no means are we distracted by the Clasico.”
Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez are a booking away from a suspension and would miss the trip to Madrid if they were to get a yellow card against Depor.
Valverde said that was something “to have in mind” but did not confirm whether it would influence his team selection.
He was adamant that he would not underestimate Depor, who have shown signs of improvement under new coach Cristobal Parralo, as Barca look to extend their unbeaten run in all competitions to 24 games.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.