Barcelona’s star strikers will need to rediscover their scoring touch to stay in the title race in La Liga as the Catalan outfit host struggling Cordoba on Saturday. In the absence of the injured Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez drew a blank in a 0-0 draw at Getafe last weekend that saw Luis Enrique’s men fall four points behind in-form league leaders Real Madrid.
However, with the European champions playing San Lorenzo in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup on Saturday evening, Barcelona can cut the gap to a single point heading into the new year. “Ahead of the match against Cordoba, it is important to end the year on a winning note and give some joy to the fans,” midfielder Ivan Rakitic said.
Barcelona will end the year having failed to claim a single trophy for the first time in six years, but, despite an indifferent start to Luis Enrique’s time in charge, Xavi Hernandez is confident of ending that drought in what is likely to be the final season of his illustrious Barcelona career.
“The motivation doesn’t stop with the passing of the years,” he said. “To play for the best team in the world always carries the same motivation. We will fight for the three competitions. It will be difficult, but we believe we can fight for the league, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League.”
Enrique is hopeful of having Neymar and Daniel Alves back fit from ankle and hamstring injuries respectively. However, Pedro Rodriguez showed he can be a capable understudy for the Brazilian should Neymar miss out again as he netted a hat-trick in the 8-1 humiliation of Huesca in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday that sealed a 12-1 aggregate victory. Champions Atletico Madrid have a tougher task to prevent losing more ground in their unlikely attempt to retain their title when they visit Athletic Bilbao on Sunday. Atletico slipped seven points off the pace with their first league defeat at home in 19 months last weekend to Villarreal.
Diego Simeone rested a host of first-team regulars as Atletico set up a Cup last-16 meeting with Real Madrid against Hospitalet on Thursday, but he will be without arguably their two best players this season in Koke and Mario Mandzukic due to suspension at San Mames.
Mandzukic’s absence is likely to mean a rare start for Antoine Griezmann up front, and the Frenchman has a good record against Athletic having scored three times in Basque derbies before moving to the Spanish capital from Real Sociedad in the summer. Athletic fought back from a goal down to claim a 1-1 draw in the latest Basque derby last weekend, but will also be missing a key player as Aymeric Laporte serves a one-game ban after being sent-off late on at Anoeta.
Villarreal’s shock victory at the Vicente Calderon last weekend has ramped up the excitement in the race for the UEFA Champions League places with Atletico in third and Malaga in seventh separated by just five points.
Fourth-placed Sevilla aren’t in action this weekend as they had been due to face Real Madrid, so Valencia can move into the top four with victory at Eibar on Saturday.
Villarreal will then look to continue their fine form of late when Deportivo La Coruna visit El Madrigal in Sunday’s lunchtime kick-off, whilst Malaga travel to Elche later in the day.
Meanwhile, Getafe must pick themselves up for the trip to Granada on Sunday after the news that their coach Cosmin Contra is to leave to join Chinese side Guangzhou R&F.