Barca face tricky derby test


Title rivals Real hosts Valencia after morale-boosting win at Almeria

MADRID: Barcelona are strong favourites to win this season’s league title but coach Pep Guardiola warned that today’s derby game at Espanyol was the most difficult in the title run-in.

VITAL WIN: Almeria’s Hernan Bernardello (right) vies with Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo during their match at the Mediterraneo’s stadium in Almeria. — AFP photo

VITAL WIN: Almeria’s Hernan Bernardello (right) vies with Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo during their match at the Mediterraneo’s stadium in Almeria. — AFP photo

Barcelona have tricky trips to Sevilla and Villarreal but first up are neighbours Espanyol who beat Barca 2-1 at Camp Nou last season and the champions also laboured to a 1-0 home win in the current campaign.

“It will be like a final and is the key game in this part of the season,” said Guardiola, whose side lead Real Madrid at La Liga summit.

He added: “(Mauricio) Pochettino is their coach and it is the hardest game we have left. We must prepare well because they will be up for it.”

Real Madrid bounced back from their demoralising defeat to Barcelona in ‘El Clasico’ with a 2-1 comeback over Almeria on Thursday to keep the title race alive but have a tough test at home to Valencia tomorrow.

With six games left Real need to win all their games to close the three-point gap, although technically it is four points as Barca have a better head-to-head record and would win if the teams finished level on points.

Real saw their 100 per cent home record in the league ended by the painful Barcelona defeat and under-fire coach Manuel Pellegrini will hope to appease the home fans with a convincing win against Valencia at the Santiago Bernabeu.

“We said before El Clasico that whoever won the match still cannot afford to think they are the champions and that whoever lost cannot believe the league is over,” said Pellegrini. “We just have to go out to win every game.”

Valencia are third, seven points ahead of Mallorca and a win over Real would push them even closer to their desired Champions League berth.

With six games left Real Mallorca are surprisingly occupying fourth and the final Champions League spot, a point ahead of Sevilla.

Mallorca’s season has been based around their home form with 13 wins   from 15 games and they are back at their fortress stadium on Monday to host Osasuna.

Sevilla fell to a shock 2-1 loss at Valladolid Tuesday for their ninth away defeat so will be glad to be home for today’s match against Sporting Gijon.

Atletico Madrid will face Sevilla in the King’s Cup final but their league form continues to infuriate their fans who watched in shock as their team crashed to a 2-1 home reverse against bottom side Xerez on Wednesday.

In the league Atletico are down in 10th with 14 defeats leaving them eight points off the top six going into today’s game at Villarreal before the Europa League semi-final first leg against Liverpool on Thursday.

Like Atletico, Villarreal were aiming for the Champions League but they may also miss out on Europe lying two points off the top six at present.

Athletic Bilbao occupy sixth and are even in with an outside shot of the Champions League places, four points behind Mallorca, heading into Monday’s home game against Real Zaragoza.

At the bottom, things are tense and two of the most endangered sides, Valladolid and Malaga, face off in a vital six-pointer tomorrow.

Valladolid took the scalp of Sevilla on Tuesday and former Spain coach Javier Clemente has revitalised the club with four points from six. Promoted Xerez have looked doomed for months but the win over Atletico Madrid gives the bottom side a chance of a Houdini-like escape although they still lie six points from safety.

Xerez host fellow strugglers Racing Santander tomorrow. — AFP