Barca extended their lead at the top of La Liga to six points with a comfortable 4-0 defeat of Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday night, hitting the woodwork five times and seeing Lionel Messi miss from the penalty spot.
It was as straightforward an assignment as they could have hoped for ahead of facing their biggest rivals, who lie 11 points back with a game in hand, but the first-half substitution of Alcacer took the sheen off.
The forward suffered a leg problem and has been ruled out for three weeks, reducing Valverde’s options before Sunday’s Bernabeu trip.
“It’s a setback that we didn’t expect. Overall the game turned out well but it’s a real shame about Paco,” he told Movistar.
“But we’re going into (the Clasico) happy. We have a week to prepare for the game and the best way to approach the Madrid match was to put in the kind of performance we had today, secure three points and boost confidence and morale.
“We are in good shape but we know that we are in for a complicated game against a huge rival. We’ll prepare for it well because we are determined to put in a good performance.”
With Barca taking advantage of Real’s participation in the FIFA Club World Cup, pundits are suggesting an away win in Madrid could effectively settle the title before the winter break.
Valverde has no time for such claims, pointing to Atletico Madrid in second place as evidence of the varied challenges at hand.
“People mention the advantage we have over Real Madrid but they forget that Atletico are only six points behind us,” he said.
“We have it pretty clear in our minds that this is a long competition. No team sews up the league in the first round of games.”
The 53-year-old also noted his side’s increasingly remarkable tendency to strike the woodwork after five more shots hit the frame of the goal against Depor.
Luis Suarez and Paulinho managed two close-range finishes apiece but the tally could easily have been into humiliation territory but for slender margins.
Barca have hit the woodwork 26 times already this term, with Messi responsible for 14 of those after three more unsuccessful attempts.
“If we deliberately tried to hit the post, we wouldn’t get to that figure,” said Valverde.
“Fortunately, apart from hitting the post we’re also scoring goals. That means we are regularly close to the goal and in position to score and that’s good.”
Here, AFP Sports looks at five things to watch for this weekend in La Liga:
BARCAS’S BIG PRE-CLASICO CHANCE
If they dispose of Deportivo la Coruna at the Camp Nou on Sunday, Barca will take a commanding 11-point lead over Real.
Next weekend, Barca travel to the Santiago Bernabeu as the Catalans and Real Madrid end their year with El Clasico.
Even with a game in hand to come, Madrid have never overcome such a deficit to win the league and to remain in the title race would realistically need to inflict Barca’s first defeat since they last visited the Bernabeu back in August to win the Spanish Super Cup.
SUAREZ BACK IN BUSINESS
Further aiding Barca’s bid to regain the title is Luis Suarez’s return to form after a poor start to the season.
Suarez struggled for both form and fitness after rushing back from a knee injury suffered as Barca fell to Madrid in the Super Cup.
However, the Uruguayan has scored in his last two outings against Celta Vigo and Villarreal with the latter strike in particular displaying the touch and speed of movement of Suarez at his best.
Deportivo also tend to bring the best out of the former Liverpool striker as he has netted six times in his last three meetings against the Galicians.
BLEAK TIMES IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY
Athletic and Sociedad are both in need of some festive cheer in the midst of hugely disappointing campaigns so far only propped up by progress to the last 32 of the Europa League.
Both sides have just two league wins each since mid-September and were dumped out of the Copa del Rey by third tier opposition in Formentera and Lleida Esportiu.
However, with just six points separating sixth from 17th in the table, European ambitions for next season are still a realistic goal for the Basque teams if squads boasting the talents of Spanish internationals Kepa Arrizabalaga, Inaki Williams, Aritz Aduriz, Asier Illarramendi and Alvaro Odriozola start playing to their potential.
FROM SECOND TIER TO TOP SIX
With Girona hosting Getafe before Villarreal’s trip to Celta Vigo on Sunday, a win for either side will take them into the top six for a few hours at least despite having two of the five smallest budgets in the division.
“Money isn’t everything, with humility Girona are competing very well,” said Girona boss Pablo Machin after Monday’s 1-0 win at Espanyol.
In their first ever season in the top flight, Girona’s tiny budget on paper is aided by Manchester City’s part ownership of the Catalans with five players on loan from the Premier League leaders.
After bouncing straight back after relegation, Getafe have learned from mistakes made during their 12-year stay in La Liga between 2004 and 2016 with crowds up at the Alfonso Perez Coliseum and Jose Bordalas building a side that caused even Barca and Madrid problems and inflicted Valencia’s only defeat of the season.
ALAVES THREATEN ATLETICO CHARGE
End 2017 strongly and Atletico could be very much in the title race come the new year with nearly 100 million euros of talent in Diego Costa and Vitolo finally freed up to play from January.
Victory over Alaves in their final home game of the year on Saturday will see Diego Simeone’s men sleep just three points off the top and open up a five-point lead over city rivals Real.
However, despite still languishing in the relegation zone, Alaves pose a more potent threat with Abelardo Fernandez in charge, who has masterminded two wins from two since being named the Basques’ third coach of the season.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Sevilla v Levante
Athletic Bilbao v Real Sociedad (1515), Eibar v Valencia (1730), Atletico Madrid v Alaves (1945)
Girona v Getafe (1100), Celta Vigo v Villarreal (1515), Las Palmas v Espanyol (1730), Barcelona v Deportivo la Coruna (1945)
Malaga v Real Betis (2000)
Simeone said he would not stand in the way of any of his players if they wanted to leave to develop their careers, and that could open the door for 26-year-old Griezmann – who has reportedly been on the radar of clubs including Manchester United, Barcelona and Paris St Germain – to leave either in January or next summer.
“I love watching my players grow, and if one of them tells me that they have the unique opportunity of playing for a certain team, after they did everything they could for me, like Griezmann has done, I’ll say it’s not a problem.
“I know that he needs to grow.”
Griezmann, who won the Golden Boot at Euro 2016, is under contract with Los Rojiblancos until 2022.