Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde insisted Saturday’s clash with Real Sociedad is “not just another game” as he looks to move a step closer to wrapping up the LaLiga title.
Barca hold a nine-point advantage over Atletico Madrid at the summit with six games to go and are closing in on a fourth domestic crown in five seasons, although they were held to a goalless draw at Huesca last time out in the league.
Valverde’s men are also into the Champions League semi-finals, where they will face Liverpool, and a Copa del Rey final against Valencia, and the temptation to manage the fitness of his squad by rotating in the coming weeks could be difficult to resist.
But the former Athletic Bilbao boss is determined not to take his foot off the gas in pursuit of a third treble in the club’s history.
“The league is at stake and we know it,” he said at a press conference. “This game is not just another game, it’s a game that can be an important step towards the title. We know that.
“It’s a good season so far, but we want it to be a complete one. We’re top of the league, we’ve got an advantage, but we want to finish there.
“We’ve won the treble twice in history. It’s not something you can say you have won lots of times.”
If he plays, Sociedad will find Lionel Messi in fine form, with the Argentina star having scored 12 goals in his last eight matches, including two in the 3-0 win over Manchester United that secured their place in the Champions League semi-finals on Tuesday.
That recent flurry sees Messi now only three short of reaching 600 goals for the club.
“I don’t know how to evaluate it,” added Valverde. “I’d like to have a selection of words that I could use so I wouldn’t keep repeating myself!
“He’s breaking every record, he’ll break many more and every time the fans come to watch him at Camp Nou, or any other ground, they expect something special and he always pulls it off. They go home happy.”
Sociedad sit 10th but already have a major scalp under their belt this season, having won 2-0 at Real Madrid in January.
“We go with the intention of winning, because there is no other way to face a game like this,” said head coach Immanol Alguacil. “We believe it. We have to play with a lot of personality and we are going to try it.
“We were able to win in Madrid and now we’ll see if we can do it in Barcelona.”
Barca will have Luis Suarez and Gerard Pique at their disposal after both men served a one-match ban at Huesca, while Valverde played down the impact of Philippe Coutinho’s controversial celebration in the win against United.
Having scored Barca’s third, the Brazilian placed his fingers in his ears in an apparent act of defiance against his critics after a difficult season.
“What surprises me is that people speak more about the gesture than the goal,” added Valverde. “The gesture is just a gesture.”
Barcelona’s record signing Philippe Coutinho lit up the Camp Nou on Tuesday with a spectacular long-range effort to help the Catalans seal the Champions League quarter finals tie against Manchester United.
He followed it up with a celebration that drew a lot of criticism. The Brazilian ran towards the stands with his fingers in his ears, which was interpreted as a jab at the supporters.
The winger clarified on social media that he had no intention of disrespecting anyone with his celebration.
“We should never listen to people who want to demotivate us,” Coutinho posted in an Instagram explanation.
“Because their speech will distract us from our real goal. I have never disrespected anyone inside or outside of football.
“I always look forward to the future with ambition.”
All eyes will be on Coutinho as he returns to Anfield in three weeks’ time as Barcelona look to overcome Liverpool in the semis.
Barcelona advanced to the Champions League semi-final by surviving an early scare to claim a 3-0 victory (4-0 on aggregate) over Manchester United at the Camp Nou.
You-know-who was the star with the first two goals, one of which was aided by a disastrous defensive clanger.
Find out how all the players rated here:
Ter Stegen 7. Made a couple of routine saves from Rashford and Pogba and a superb late reflex stop to deny Sanchez.
Roberto 6. Struggled early against Martial’s pace, but recovered and was denied a goal by a great save from De Gea.
Pique 7. Composed against his former club, easily containing Lingard although less comfortable against sub Lukaku.
Lenglet 6. Sloppy start but soon regained his usual solidity in the centre of defence as United’s threat was soon quashed.
Alba 7. Energetic and incisive down the left, always available to get forward in support of Coutinho and linking play well.
Rakitic 7. Gave Barca strength in midfield after their poor start with his usual discipline. Came close with a flicked header.
Busquets 7. Struggled against United’s fast start, but soon responded to deliver a fine display on and off the ball.
Arthur 7. Conducted the orchestra with a slick display of passing, helping control the midfield and dictate the tempo.
Messi 9. Glorious strike for the opener, got lucky for the second, and was magnificent throughout. Unique and unrepeatable.
Suarez 5. Somewhat off the pace with some poor touches in link-up play, and rarely had a sniff of goal but worked hard. Night summed up by petulant yellow.
Coutinho 8. Did really well on the left flank, knitting play together and offering penetration including a magnificent goal.
Semedo 6. Replaced Roberto at right-back for the final 20 minutes and was steady as the action wound down.
Vidal 6. Came on for Arthur with the game won at 3-0, and was a whirlwind of energy in the latter stages.
Dembele 6. Given a chance to regain match sharpness in the final ten minutes, but had little chance to impress.