BARCELONA: La Liga leaders Barcelona welcome Atletico Madrid to Camp Nou on Sunday needing to climb out of a rut and take a significant step towards clinching the title.
With an 11-point advantage on second-placed Real Madrid, Barcelona have one hand on the trophy, but have lost some ground with two consecutive 0-0 draws against Girona and Getafe.
Xavi’s side are crawling towards the line rather than sprinting over it, with the team’s morale taking a big hit when Madrid knocked them out of the Copa del Rey with a 4-0 thrashing at Camp Nou earlier in April.
Matters off the pitch have taken the focus, with president Joan Laporta giving a news conference to clarify the club’s denial of any wrongdoings in the “Negreira case” referee scandal and a potential return for Lionel Messi from Paris Saint-Germain gaining momentum.
Laporta has also said he wants to renew Xavi’s contract, but the coach wants his team to finish the job by winning La Liga before he entertains talks over a new deal or discusses summer signings.
“When La Liga is won, we’ll celebrate it, but there’s nothing won yet. We have to win it,” insisted the coach earlier this month. Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski has only netted twice in his last seven games across all competitions — both against bottom of the table Elche.
His drought is one of the factors which led Barcelona to consecutive goalless draws in the top flight for the first time since 2005. However Xavi said Lewandowski, who is the league’s top goalscorer with 17, will soon be back on the scoresheet.
“He’s still the top scorer, his first half of the season was extraordinary,” added Xavi. “His numbers are good in the second half of the season, but not as good as in the first. The goals will come, for Robert and the team.”
Barcelona cannot afford to take their eye off the ball on Sunday, lest they suffer another painful home defeat — Atletico are the division’s most in-form side. Since the World Cup, Diego Simeone’s team have hit top form.
It is too late for the Rojiblancos to salvage any silverware from the season, with Atletico knocked out of Europe, the Spanish Cup and 13 points behind Barcelona — but finishing above rivals Real Madrid would offer some consolation.
Atletico’s key player, and perhaps La Liga’s best performer this season, is former Barcelona forward Antoine Griezmann. The French striker, on loan to Atletico from the Catalans until he signed a permanent deal with the capital club in October, impressed on France’s run to the World Cup final.
He brought that form back to club football and has pulled the strings for Atletico in a way he never got close to during his failed stint at Barcelona. Griezmann, 32, has 11 goals and nine assists for Atletico this season in La Liga and is arguably at his career peak level of performance, although he says he can still raise it.
“I’m very happy with my performance this year, but I don’t think I’ve reached my ceiling yet,” said Griezmann after netting twice last weekend against Almeria. Real Madrid, who qualified for the Champions League semi-finals this week, face Celta Vigo on Saturday, looking to cut Barcelona’s lead down to eight points.
After a barren run, Ghana international Inaki Williams has burst into life to ignite Athletic Bilbao’s bid for European football next season. He has four goals in his last three games across all competitions and will be looking to extend his good form against relegation-battling Almeria on Saturday.
Barcelona striker Robert Lewandowski is not in his best run but has the most shots on target this season in La Liga. Real Betis winger Joaquin, who will retire at the end of the season, has made more La Liga appearances than any other outfield player and is seven off matching the all-time record (622) set by former goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta. Villarreal’s Dani Parejo is the division’s pass-master with more successful balls than any other player in the top flight.