MADRID, Spain, Dec 16 – Barcelona will have to end Espanyol’s 10-game unbeaten run if the Spanish champions are to close to within three points of La Liga leaders Real Madrid in Sunday’s Catalan derby.
Barca have the chance to end the year within striking distance of their eternal rivals with Madrid not in Liga action due to their participation in the Club World Cup in Japan.
However, they will confronted by an Espanyol side that have conceded in just two of their last nine league outings to shoot up the table and to within just four points of the Champions League places.
Barca boss Luis Enrique will at least have the rare luxury this season of counting on a fully-fit squad as Neymar returns from suspension after missing the comfortable 3-0 win at Osasuna last weekend.
“In the past two or three games the team has improved and got back to feeling positive,” said captain Andres Iniesta, whose comeback from a six-week injury layoff has coincided with Barca’s return to form.
“We have to continue that into the two games we have to end the year.”
Barca also received a welcome boost on Thursday as Luis Suarez extended his contract with the club until 2021.
Luis Enrique’s men had the unwelcome distraction of fulfilling a friendly commitment in Qatar in midweek, but Lionel Messi, Suarez and Neymar were all on target in a 5-3 win over Saudi champions Al-Ahli.
The meeting did at least garner Barca some goodwill as a six-year-old Afghan boy, who became an internet sensation after pictures of him wearing an improvised Messi shirt made out of plastic bags went viral, got to meet his superstar idol.
Murtaza Ahmadi couldn’t be separated from the five-time World Player of the Year before kick-off.
More Messi magic may be in need come Sunday as only a late consolation by Sporting Gijon’s Duje Cop ended a club record 586-minute streak without conceding for Espanyol’s former Real Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez.
“They maybe didn’t start the league as they expected, but they are in very good form defensively and it will be a difficult game,” added Iniesta.
– Atletico seek reprieve –
Atletico Madrid are a huge 12 points off the top after suffering a fourth league defeat in seven games at Villarreal on Monday.
The immediate target for Diego Simeone’s side when they host Las Palmas on Saturday is just to get back into the top four as they lag behind Sevilla, Villarreal and Real Sociedad in sixth.
The bad news for last season’s Champions League finalists continued as goalkeeper Jan Oblak will be sidelined for at least three months after undergoing shoulder surgery on Wednesday.
“I am sad for Jan because he is not just a good teammate, but a good friend,” Atletico’s back-up ‘keeper Miguel Angel Moya told the club’s website.
“On the other hand, I’m excited by this new opportunity because the work you do day in, day out has its rewards. Now I have to demonstrate that I am an asset to the team.”
Sevilla lead Atletico by five points and will be confident of at least maintaining that advantage when they host Malaga in an Andalusian derby later on Saturday.
Only Barcelona have come away from the Sanchez Pizjuan with any points so far this season, whilst Malaga haven’t won in seven games on the road in La Liga.
At the bottom, should Sporting Gijon avoid defeat at home to Villarreal, Valencia’s worst ever start to a league season will see Los Che end the year in the relegation zone as they too aren’t in action this weekend.
Alaves v Real Betis (10:45pm)
Sporting Gijon v Villarreal (3pm), Atletico Madrid v Las Palmas (6:15pm), Granada v Real Sociedad (8:30pm), Sevilla v Malaga (10:45pm)
Leganes v Eibar (2pm), Deportivo la Coruna v Osasuna (8:30pm), Barcelona v Espanyol (10:45pm)
Athletic Bilbao v Celta Vigo (10:45pm)