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Messi ban adds to Barca pressure

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MADRID, Spain, March 2 – Barcelona must live without the inspirational presence of Lionel Messi when they tackle Sporting Gijon on Saturday as the Argentine superstar serves his first La Liga suspension.

Messi was booked in last weekend’s 2-1 win at Atletico Madrid, his fifth yellow card of the campaign.

His absence will be a huge blow to Barcelona, who trail Real Madrid by 10 points in the title race, as his value was shown in midweek when he smashed a wonderful hat-trick in Argentina’s 3-1 friendly win in Switzerland.

Real Madrid, who face Espanyol on Sunday, also have their own worries with the club facing more speculation over the future of coach Jose Mourinho.

The colourful Portuguese was spotted in London in midweek, fuelling rumours of a return to the English Premier League next season.

While some media reports say the trip was to purchase a property in the British capital, Spanish newspaper Marca claimed this is for Mourinho’s own investment purposes and not a signal that he will be coaching in London next season.

Espanyol will provide another stern test of Madrid’s dominance in La Liga.

Currently sitting eighth, just two points from a Champions League place, the Barcelona-based club have their own objectives.

“I won there with Seville and I think we can do it again. It was a nice feeling, very intense and difficult but I think we can repeat that if we stick to our game,” said midfielder Koffi Romaric.

“We want the points for our own goals, not to do Barca a favour.”

Portuguese international Fabio Coentrao joined Madrid’s injury list when he pulled up with a muscle problem in his country’s friendly with Poland on Wednesday.

He will be out for three weeks and joins Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema, both also out for similar periods with muscular injuries.

Although Madrid can welcome back Turkish stars Nuri Sahin and Hamit Altintop into their ranks they will have to do without the services of central defender Pepe who is suspended.

Barca’s opponents Sporting Gijon are six points from safety in La Liga’s penultimate position but have turned a corner since ex-Spain manager Javier Clemente has taken over.

Two draws in two games under the new coach have halted a sequence of one win in seven for the north coast club.

With only 14 games to go Barca can’t afford to drop any more points in their pursuit of Madrid, with a home fixture to come against the leaders in late April.

One player who will be looking for a good performance against Sporting is Pedro Rodriguez, who was left out of Spain’s squad for the 5-0 victory over Venezuela in midweek.

“All players want to go to Euro 2012, I hope I can too but it is going to be difficult, they played great the other day but we’ll see what happens,” he said.

“To win the league is tough because 10 points is a big gap, but we are not going to give up.”

One player who could be going to Euro 2012 is Valencia forward Roberto Soldado who grabbed a hat-trick in Spain’s victory on his return for ‘La Roja’.

His side sit third and visit Granada on Sunday while the battle behind them for fourth position and a Champions League berth is hotting up.

Seven clubs are separated by three points with fourth placed Levante entertaining Betis on Monday and Athletic Bilbao, currently fifth, facing a Basque derby against Real Sociedad on Sunday.

Sevilla and Atletico Madrid are both three points behind Levante and meet on Saturday in a showdown neither team can afford to lose.

Saturday

Mallorca v Osasuna (1700 GMT), Getafe v Malaga (1700 GMT), Rayo Vallecano v Racing Santander (1700 GMT), Barcelona v Sporting Gijon (1900 GMT), Sevilla v Atletico Madrid (2100 GMT)

Sunday

Zaragoza v Villarreal (1100 GMT), Atletic Bilbao v Real Sociedad (1500 GMT), Granada v Valencia (1700 GMT), Real Madrid v Espanyol (2030 GMT)

Monday

Levante v Real Betis (2000 GMT)

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