MADRID, Spain, March 9 – Hailed as the greatest club side of all time after their European master class, Barcelona face humble Racing Santander Sunday, trying to hunt down Real Madrid, the best team in Spain.
Lionel Messi’s record-breaking five goals in the 7-1 Champions League rout of Bayer Leverkusen eased Barcelona into the quarter-finals, but it’s Real Madrid who rule the roost on the home front, boasting a 10-point lead going into the weekend.
Barcelona, La Liga champions for the past three seasons, have not shown the same consistency this term.
But on occasions, such as their 3-1 win at Real Madrid in December and against Bayer at the Nou Camp on Wednesday, they have demonstrated they can still produce breathtaking football.
“We do not feel unbeatable although we do feel strong and confident in our style of football,” said Barca star Xavi Hernandez.
“A lot of teams have already beaten us and we are 10 points off the lead, so we are definitely not invincible.”
Messi on Wednesday became the first player to score five goals in a Champions League tie, a performance which has led to lavish comparisons with great sides of the past like Rinus Michels’ Ajax or the AC Milan of Arrigo Sacchi.
“It is an honour to be compared with the best teams ever like Sacchi’s Milan although we are not trying to judge ourselves like that,” added Xavi.
“But Messi is incomparable. There is no one like him who can make the difference in so many games.”
Barcelona’s problem domestically has come away from home where they have won only five of a possible 12 games and now face a Racing side third from bottom and scrapping for points.
“We are a team of winners and it makes us angry if we lose a title. We want to win everything and we will compete to the end. We are playing well and if we keep enjoying our football the results will come,” said Xavi.
Barca have been up against a prolific Real side who have given little room for error as they have won 20 out of their last 21 games — the only blemish was the loss to Barcelona.
They travel to Real Betis with a comfortable lead, but Brazilian star Kaka insists they cannot yet relax.
“We need to keep picking up points as we are up against a very strong rival. I think it is down to us whether the games are easy or difficult and if we perform well then we will get the results,” he said.
Third-placed Valencia sneaked a 1-0 win away to Granada last weekend and now entertain Mallorca while, below them, Malaga take on Levante in a key battle for a place in Europe.
Levante’s form had tailed off but back-to-back wins, including their first on home soil since early December against Betis, has put them firmly back in the hunt, while Malaga have also won their last two games.
Athletic Bilbao are on a fine run playing open, attacking football which coach Marcelo Bielsa has installed this season and they play Osasuna, who are among the teams looking to move into the European places.
Rayo Vallecano have been one of the big surprises along with Levante and they have a crunch game against Espanyol, a point below them.
Sevilla have had a new lease of life under coach Miguel Gonzalez ‘Michel’ and they travel to Sporting Gijon while Atletico Madrid, who have also been boosted by the arrival of Diego Simeone since Christmas, are at home to Granada.
Saturday (Kicks-offs GMT)
Malaga v Levante 1700, Real Sociedad v Zaragoza 1700, Sporting Gijon v Sevilla 1900, Real Betis v Real Madrid 2100
Espanyol v Rayo Vallecano 1100, Atletico Madrid v Granada 1100, Valencia v Mallorca 1500, Racing Santander v Barcelona 1700, Osasuna v Athletic Bilbao 2030
Villarreal v Getafe 2000