BARCELONA, March 19 – Barcelona's fight for the title with Real Madrid depends more than ever on the form of superstar Lionel Messi who has scored eight of their last ten goals.The champions have not been playing at their best and it is largely thanks to Messi that they are still neck and neck with Real with just goal difference separating the bitter rivals at the top of the Spanish first division.
As they prepare to face Real Zaragoza this weekend, the Argentine’s teammates have been quick to praise him with keeper Victor Valdes claiming he has the potential to be the greatest footballer ever.
Coach Pep Guardiola, though, has emphasised the importance of the team as a whole playing well from now until the end of the season.
"When I talk about the team I am not trying to downplay Messi at all. There is no doubt that Leo is very important to us because he is the best player in the world, and he is like Michael Jordan was to basketball," he said.
"The aim is that he is involved as much as possible in the game and that he gets the ball in dangerous areas as that is where he likes to be.
"He is the first to press and win balls and this is contagious for the rest of the players. We can do something special this year but we need to be all at our best."
Messi was on target twice as Barcelona beat Stuttgart to reach the Champions League quarter-finals in midweek while, last weekend, he hit a majestic hat-trick in the 3-0 defeat of Valencia.
Meanwhile, Real take on Sporting Gijon and defender Alvaro Arbeloa says that the quality of Barcelona gives them an extra motivation to beat them to the title.
"Barcelona have been playing at a high level since last year and so when your performance drops people talk about crisis but I don’t believe this and we are still talking about one of the best teams in the history of the game," he said.
"It is going to be difficult to win the league against this team but that is what gives us an extra incentive."
Adding to the incentive factor is the Champions League final taking place at Real’s Bernabau stadium; Barcelona could make it but Real are already out of contention having been eliminated by Lyon in the last 16.
Valencia are looking for victory against Almeria having failed to win in three attempts.
They welcome back prolific striker David Villa who missed last week’s defeat by Barcelona. They remain three points clear in third mainly due to the inconsistent form of their rivals for a Champions League place.
Sevilla, eliminated from the Champions League in midweek, have also failed to win their last three matches and they face Espanyol with speculation that coach Manolo Jimenez will be sacked at the end of the season.
An exciting contest is in store between Mallorca, who have only been beaten once at home this season, and an Atletico Madrid side that have still not given up on qualifying for Europe despite being eight points adrift.
Deportivo La Coruna, lying in sixth, are having their best campaign for several seasons and play Valladolid, while Athletic Bilbao and Getafe, directly below them, meet at San Mames.
Relegation-threatened Tenerife managed a key victory over Espanyol last weekend and they know that if they can beat Xerez then they have a good chance of drawing level with fourth from bottom Zaragoza.
Xerez v Tenerife, Deportivo La Coruna v Valladolid, Athletic Bilbao v Getafe, Real Madrid v Sporting Gijon, Espanyol v Sevilla
Malaga v Villarreal, Mallorca v Atletico Madrid, Osasuna v Racing Santander, Valencia v Almeria, Zaragoza v Barcelona