Spain braced for classic face off

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MADRID, April 9- Barcelona might be just one step from reaching the Champions League final but on Saturday tackle Real Madrid in a mouth-watering 'El Clasico' that could decide this season's La Liga title.

Argentine Lionel Messi won all the plaudits after a spell-binding performance that saw him net all of Barca’s four goals in the Catalan club’s 4-1 thrashing of Arsenal on Tuesday.

But Real playmaker Guti claimed Barca were not all about the young Argentinian.

"Messi didn’t need to score four goals for us to know who he is," Guti said. "We need to have an anti-Barcelona plan because they are not just Messi.

"However, (Real) Madrid are always favourites especially playing at home. Barcelona are a great team with the same points but we don’t need to feel inferior because we aren’t."

Real have won all 15 of their home matches in the league to edge ahead of Barca on goal difference – both teams are on 77 points – and are targeting a 13th successive win in the league.

Barcelona memorably won 6-2 at the Bernabeu last season on their way to a historic treble with Messi tearing Real apart and the Argentine is on fire with his quadruple against Arsenal making it 39 goals for the season in all competitions — 26 in La Liga and eight in Europe.

"If the eleven players work hard, with the talent we have it’s difficult to lose a match," said Barca midfielder Xavi. "We also have the best player in the world in Messi."

Barcelona won the first Clasico 1-0 at Camp Nou and have won the last three clashes between the two sides but Real have been plundering the goals of late and their deadly strike force of Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo are averaging better than a goal a game of late.

Ronaldo has 11 goals in his last 10 league games while Higuain, on 24 goals for the season, has 13 in his last 10 league matches scoring in each of his last five league outings

"We don’t feel the need for revenge (for the 6-2 defeat last season)," said Ronaldo. "We are very conscious that this match can decide La Liga. We have great ambition to win it."

Both Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola have been playing down the significance of the game – possibly to take the pressure off their players – but there is no disguising its importance.

A win would put either side three points clear with seven games remaining and that is a healthy cushion when you consider that both teams have only dropped 13 points all season.

Real welcome back Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso from suspensions in a big boost while Barcelona could be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who volleyed the winner in the 1-0 victory at Camp Nou – with the Swede missing the Barcelona victory over Arsenal due to a leg injury.

Defenders Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique missed that game through suspension but while captain Puyol returns for the Real duel doubts surround the fitness of Pique although Andres Iniesta is back from injury after a late outing on Wednesday.

Elsewhere rivals Valencia and Real Mallorca lock horns at the Ono stadium in a duel for the Champions League places.

Valencia are third a full eight points ahead of Mallorca in fifth but the islanders have won 12 out of their 14 home matches this season and hope to make Valencia their latest scalp.

Sevilla, in fourth, are level on 48 points with Mallorca and after a maiden win against Tenerife last time out new coach Antonio Alvarez hopes for another three points at Malaga on Saturday.

For the bottom three of Xerez, Valladolid and Tenerife the games are running out to beat the drop, the latter two playing on Saturday in a vital relegation six-pointer.

Fixtures

Saturday

Malaga v Sevilla (1600 GMT), Tenerife v Valladolid (1800), Villarreal v Sporting Gijon (1800), Xerez v Getafe (1800), Real Madrid v Barcelona (2000)

Sunday (all 1500 GMT unless stated)

Deportivo La Coruna v Racing Santander, Athletic Bilbao v Almeria, Osasuna v Real Zaragoza, Espanyol v Atletico Madrid (1700 GMT), Real Mallorca v Valencia (1900 GMT)

 

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