After staving off what was turning into a full blown crisis with victory over La Liga champions Atletico Madrid last weekend, Barcelona will be hoping their best performance of the season proves to be a turning point in their campaign.
The star forward trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez were all on target to ensure coach Luis Enrique remained in a job as he appeared on the brink due to dressing room discontent with his constant rotation of the squad.
However, speculation over Messi’s future at the club has continued to rumble on due to the Argentine’s contradictory statements over the past week. The four-time FIFA World Player of the Year firstly stated that he “never had any intention of leaving”, but the next day claimed “I don’t know where I’ll be next year.”
Enrique named his 28th different line-up in 28 matches in charge for the second leg of the Catalans Copa del Rey tie away to Elche on Thursday, taking advantage of a 5-0 first leg lead to give Messi, Neymar, Suarez and a host of other first-team regulars a rest.
Messi and Suarez will definitely return for the visit to Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday, but Neymar is a doubt after a late challenge from Jose Maria Gimenez meant he finished the game against Atletico with a bloodied ankle.
“He is recovering well after that ugly challenge, but that is football,” said Enrique. “Fortunately, it is nothing serious and he will be available to play shortly.”
Earlier on Sunday, Real Madrid will have the chance to open up a four-point gap on Barcelona at the top of the table when they travel across the Spanish capital to face Getafe. Cristiano Ronaldo paraded the third FIFA Ballon d’Or of his career in front of an adoring Santiago Bernabeu ahead his side’s Copa del Rey clash against Atletico on Thursday.
The Madrid fans’ love for the Portuguese, though, saw them turn against Gareth Bale during last weekend’s 3-0 win over Espanyol as the Welshman was whistled for not passing to Ronaldo when he missed a simple chance in the second half. However, Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti backed Bale, who had previously scored a wonderful free-kick and contributed in the build-up to James Rodriguez’s opener.
“The relationship between Cristiano and Gareth is great. I saw the chance from the other day and it seemed to me very difficult to pass the ball at that time so I didn’t need to speak with Gareth. He played a fantastic game against Espanyol.”
Atletico will expect to secure their place in third when struggling Granada travel to the Vicente Calderon. The Andalusians haven’t won in the league since September and another defeat could signal the end of an ill-fated time in charge for experienced coach Joaquin Caparros.
Valencia can leapfrog Sevilla into fourth for at least 24 hours when they host Almeria at Mestalla looking to make up for the disappointment of their Copa del Rey exit to Espanyol in midweek. Sevilla had no such trouble as they disposed of Granada 6-1 on aggregate to make the last eight, but they will face a more difficult task when seventh-placed Malaga visit the Sanchez Pizjuan on Sunday night.
It wasn’t all bad news for the Scot, though, as he was offered a crisp in consolidation by a young fan as he watched the final few minutes of the game from the stands, and his side can move into the top half of the table should they beat Rayo Vallecano at home on Saturday.
Spanish La Liga fixtures
Cordoba v Eibar
Real Sociedad v Rayo Vallecano
Valencia v Almeria
Villarreal v Athletic Bilbao
Espanyol v Celta Vigo
Getafe v Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid v Granada
Deportivo La Coruna v Barcelona
Elche v Levante
Sevilla v Malaga