Barca, Madrid to warm up for Champions semifinals
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona and Real Madrid both play at home on Saturday in the Spanish league looking to make their final adjustments while resting some weary legs for the Champions League semifinals set to start next week against a pair of German rivals.
Barcelona hosts a struggling Levante side with Lionel Messi doubtful to play as he tries to fully recover from a right hamstring pull in time for the Catalan club’s trip to Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich on Tuesday.
Madrid, meanwhile, welcomes Real Betis as it hones its attack led by Cristiano Ronaldo for Wednesday’s game at Borussia Dortmund.
With Barcelona 13 points clear of Madrid and set to reclaim the domestic title, the focus for both teams has clearly shifted to reaching the European final in London on May 25.
“Wembley brings us a lot of joy,” Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez told UEFA’s website. “We have been in two finals there and won both. Having the final at Wembley makes us dream of getting there again. It will be difficult, but we want to be there with all the good feelings we’ve had in London and at Wembley in particular.”
Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova gave his squad two days of rest this week. The team was back at practice on Wednesday, with Messi doing an individual workout.
The four-time world player of the year has sat out Barcelona’s last two league matches with the nagging leg injury. Before that, he set a record of scoring in 19 straight league matches.
Levante has just one win in its last 12 games. Its attack has been particularly sluggish with just two goals in its last five matches as the team has yet to find a replacement for Nigeria striker Obafemi Martins following his midseason exit.
“Barcelona has played a few games without Messi before and it’s still Barcelona,” said Levante defender Sergio Ballesteros. “If he plays it will mean a big boost for them, and if he doesn’t, they are still able to beat anyone as they showed (last week) at Zaragoza, because they have an extraordinary squad.”
While Messi may miss Saturday’s game, Ronaldo will either start or at least see extended minutes as a substitute if Madrid coach Jose Mourinho sticks to his pattern established in recent weeks. Ronaldo reached the 50-goal mark for the third straight season in Madrid’s win at Athletic Bilbao last Sunday.
Mourinho may rest playmaker Xabi Alonso, who has been in and out of his starting lineup recently.
Madrid lost 1-0 at Betis earlier this season from midfielder Benat Etxebarria’s long strike. Betis has one of the league’s most explosive attacks and is in the hunt for a Europa League berth come next fall.
Betis coach Pepe Mel says Ronaldo is making a strong case to be considered the best player of the season.
“This season (Ronaldo) is doing all those things that perhaps be failed to do before,” Mel told Spanish sports daily Marca. “He plays well in important games and makes the decisive plays, like against Barcelona and Manchester United. He swings games in Madrid’s favor.”
Also on Saturday, Malaga visits Valencia with both teams level on 50 points in fifth- and sixth-place, respectively.
On Sunday, third-place Atletico Madrid visits a Sevilla side that has won seven straight at its Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium, while fourth-place Real Sociedad takes its streak of one loss in 21 games to Osasuna. Espanyol travels to Getafe as well.
With seven rounds to go, the fight to avoid the drop is tightening up with five teams within a five-point spread and the bottom three slated to go down.
Mallorca is in second-to-last place but one point from safety before it hosts Rayo Vallecano on Friday.
Granada plays Valladolid at home hovering just one point above the relegation zone on Saturday.
Deportivo La Coruna, which last month appeared doomed to join the second division, hopes to continue its remarkable turnaround by extending its four-game winning streak against visiting Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Last-place Celta Vigo hosts 18th-place Real Zaragoza on Monday.