The Blaugrana are looking to protect their dominant 11-point advantage at the top when they travel to inconsistent Sevilla on Saturday. This clash – a traditionally high-scoring affair – isn’t without its difficulties for the runaway leaders.
Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final opener at home to Roma looms large. Lionel Messi didn’t play during the international break for Argentina, with question marks also surrounding the availability of several of his celebrated team-mates.
Here are the talking points:
WILL WE SEE SOME MESSI MAGIC?
Before his return to training on Thursday, the world last saw a frustrated Messi storm out of Santiago Bernabeu in disgust on Tuesday as Argentina suffered the indignity of being thrashed 6-1 by Spain.
A hamstring strain had forced the 30-year-old to sit out that clash and the preceding 2-0 victory against Italy. It has also left club head coach Ernesto Valverde with something to ponder.
Medical tests have been passed and the injury is nothing serious. But such complaints can turn into debilitating problems during the hectic final months of the season.
Messi has brutalised Sevilla throughout his celebrated career. They are the club he has scored the most La Liga goals against, registering a punishing return of 29 strikes in 31 games.
Valverde must now judge whether he’d like his key player to wreak havoc again, or be wrapped in cotton wool for the midweek visit of Roma.
With such a dominant advantage in La Liga, a substitute role may beckon at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.
14 - Excluding Barcelona (29) and Real Madrid (21), Lionel Messi has hit the woodwork more times than any team in La Liga this season. Magnet. pic.twitter.com/97YQuI5TMA— OptaJose (@OptaJose) March 29, 2018
France winger Ousmane Dembele’s curious first season at Barca could be about to make another twist.
With absent defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets set to be covered by Brazil’s Paulinho and veteran Andres Iniesta potentially in need of rest after a delightful performance against Argentina, a spot on the right flank looks open. The question now is where will Valverde turn?
Rumours abound about the supremo’s lack of appreciation for Dembele’s erratic talent. Only two away La Liga starts – from three in total – have been granted to the €105 million (Dh475.3m) summer buy from Borussia Dortmund, and both times he’s not completed 90 minutes – one of which was September’s serious hamstring tear at Getafe.
Barca’s system could be further shaken by Spain centre-back Gerard Pique’s and Germany goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s knee complaints. Will Valverde want to risk the balance even more by throwing in the inconsistent Dembele?
Yet the 20-year-old started – for the first time in a year – on Tuesday as France prevailed 3-1 in Russia. Plus, his last two run-outs for Barca were starts that produced an assist for Messi in the 2-0 triumph against Athletic Bilbao and a goal of his own in the 3-0 round-of-16 thumping of Chelsea.
The XI will be illustrative as to whether such form means he might have finally earned the coach’s faith.
SEVILLA ARE UNLIKELY SAVIOURS
There is a sense of desperation for anyone hoping Sevilla can breathe new life into La Liga’s stale title race.
Slip-ups are needed by Barcelona and fast – only eight rounds remain after this weekend. The Catalans have also drawn two of their last four away fixtures.
But those hoping Sevillistas can provide another one should look elsewhere.
The Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan’s fabled intimidating atmosphere has turned into a whimper as the hosts have won just two of their last six home games in the top flight under Italy’s Vincenzo Montella. In this spell, city rivals Real Betis, Atletico Madrid and Valencia have come away with victories.
Yet even when the club were flying under Unai Emery and sweeping up successive Europa Leagues, the trip to Andalusia held few worries for Barca. Since the start of 2012/13, they’ve won four, drawn one and lost one to a combined score of 14-8.
This volume of goals gives the visitors even more hope.
France debutant Wissam Ben Yedder, Colombia striker Luis Muriel and suspended attacking midfielder Pablo Sarabia are Sevilla’s top scorers in La Liga with six goals each. This is 19 less than Messi and 15 less than Uruguay hit man Luis Suarez.
It will take something truly unexpected for Barca’s quest for an unbeaten top-flight campaign to end this weekend.
Messi missed Argentina‘s two internationals over the last week due to a hamstring strain, although he did train between the 2-0 win over Italy last Friday and Tuesday’s 6-1 humiliation by Spain.
“Messi took part in a part of training with the squad,” said Barca on their Twitter account.
The 30-year-old five-time world player of the year joined other Barca stars just back from international duty.
With Barca enjoying an 11-point lead over Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga, where they are unbeaten all season, Messi may be rested for Saturday’s trip to Sevilla to give him more time to recover ahead of the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Roma on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Barca coach Ernesto Valverde had said he was feeling “calm” with regards Messi’s potentially availability.
“He has a slight problem but we hope that it’s not serious,” he said.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 29, 2018
Provided by AFP Sport
Sergio Ramos played down Spain’s 6-1 win over Argentina on Tuesday, calling the result “distorted” and pointing out that Spain’s opponents were missing a key man.
“Leo (Messi) is a top, top player, a unique player, and Argentina are inferior without him,” the Spain captain said of his opposite number, who missed the tie with a hamstring complaint.
“Argentina, with Messi, is more powerful.”
Ramos nevertheless enjoyed the result, contrasting it to Spain’s 4-1 loss to Argentina in a 2010 friendly.
“I remember that Argentina scored four against us in River Plate’s stadium. Now we have a positive memory of playing them,” the Real Madrid defender said, though he said the scoreline on Tuesday was “distorted” by a flurry of late goals.