Madrid (AFP) – Lionel Messi was named in the starting line-up for Barcelona’s first pre-season friendly on Saturday as Ronald Koeman showed no hesitation in reintegrating the Argentinian following his failed attempt to leave the club.

Barca had confirmed on Saturday morning that Messi will also continue as captain this season, with both club and player appearing keen to put on a united front ahead of their return to La Liga.

After condemning the board last week and admitting he had been forced to stay, Messi arrived early on Monday for his return to pre-season training and worked on the squad’s days off in a bid to make up for lost time.

Koeman, meanwhile, had said last month he only wanted players who wanted to be at Barcelona but he was full of praise for Messi on Friday, calling him “the best”, and backed that up in his first team selection.

Messi was picked to start against Gimnastic Tarragona, who play in Spain’s third tier, with Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele up front alongside him. 

Dembele is making his first appearance since suffering a torn hamstring in November but there was no place in the squad for either Luis Suarez or Arturo Vidal, who have both been told they can leave.

Koeman also handed starts to youngsters Carles Alena and Pedri in midfield while Jordi Alba, Clement Lenglet, Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto formed a familiar back four, ahead of Neto, who is standing in for the injured Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal.

Barcelona will not play their first La Liga game against Villarreal until round three at the end of the month, having been granted extra time off due to their involvement in last season’s Champions League.

Reigning champions Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are also sitting out the first weekend.

But seven games are scheduled this Saturday and Sunday, the first of them finishing goalless between Eibar and Celta Vigo.

Still without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic, Spain’s top flight got off to a slow start at Ipurua, where Eibar finished with 10 men after Pape Diop was sent off in the 87th minute. 

Celta’s Nolito and Emre Mor were both denied in the first half while Pedro Leon and Brais Mendez had good chances for Eibar before Diop picked up a second yellow card for a late slide. 

But there was no separating two teams that both finished in the bottom half last season and whose main focus will be on survival again this term.