Messi targets more history, Suarez a first goal
MADRID: Lionel Messi continues his quest to become the all-time leading goalscorer in La Liga just days after equalling a similar feat in the Champions League when Barcelona visit Almeria on Saturday.
Messi drew level with Real Madrid legend Raul on 71 Champions League goals with a brace as Barca bounced back from two consecutive defeats to beat Ajax 2-0 in midweek and progress to the last 16.
The Argentine is just one goal short of the 251 goals Telmo Zarra scored for Athletic Bilbao between 1940 and 1955, but has been kept scoreless in his last La Liga outings as Barca slipped to defeat against Real Madrid and Celta Vigo.
That downturn in form has coincided with Luis Suarez’s introduction to the side after serving his four-month ban for biting at the World Cup.
The Uruguayan has yet to find the net in his three appearances for the Catalans and endured a frustrating night on his return to old club Ajax as he squandered his best chance to break his duck by firing straight at Jasper Cillessen with only the Dutch international ‘keeper to beat.
However, Barca boss Luis Enrique played down the importance of Suarez’s slow start and is confident his star front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar will click in the coming weeks.
“Messi is the best player I have seen in my life,” said Enrique. “In attack we have distinct possibilities. We know that Neymar and Luis can play in different positions and that their responsibilities change when we have the ball and when we don’t.
“I like to have those variations. We have players of a very high level.”
At the back Enrique will still be without the injured Jeremy Mathieu, so Gerard Pique may be recalled after missing out in the last two games.
League leaders Real Madrid are also in action on Saturday as they look to extend their 12-game winning streak against Rayo Vallecano at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Madrid eased past an under-strength Liverpool on Tuesday thanks to Karim Benzema’s winner to secure their passage into the last 16.
And the in-form Frenchman, who has 10 goals in 16 appearances this season, believes he is enjoying his best run of form since joining the European champions five years ago.
“I always hear that a footballer enters his prime when he reaches 26. I hope that is the case for me,” he told Madrid sports daily AS.
“We are in great form and enjoying playing together. I would underline the unity that exists in this group. We play together with the same attitude.
“We know that any player that comes on from the bench can make the difference, can swing the match our way, and that is what counts.”
Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti confirmed in midweek he would recall Gareth Bale to his starting line-up after the Welshman looked lively in his 30-minute cameo appearance from the bench against Liverpool following a five-game absence due to a pelvic muscle injury.
Isco is the player most likely to make way for Bale with James Rodriguez switching to the left side of midfield.
Champions Atletico Madrid will be hoping to remain just a point adrift of Real when they travel to face managerless Real Sociedad on Sunday.
Former Manchester United boss David Moyes and Alejandro Sabella, who led Argentina to the World Cup final in July, are among the candidates to replace Jagoba Arrasate.
But president Jokin Aperribay confirmed coaches Asier Santana and Imanol Alguaci will temporarily take charge for the visit of Diego Simeone’s men.
Second-placed Valencia can heap more misery on Athletic Bilbao after they were mathematically eliminated from the Champions League with defeat to Porto in midweek when they meet at the Mestalla.
Meanwhile, Sevilla will be looking to bounce back from their defeat to Athletic last time out and remain in the title hunt as they entertain lowly Levante at the Sanchez Pizjuan.
Fixtures (all times GMT) Friday Cordoba v Deportivo la Coruna (1945)
Saturday Almeria v Barcelona (1500), Getafe v Elche (1700), Real Madrid v Rayo Vallecano (1900), Malaga v Eibar (2100), Celta Vigo v Granada (2100)
Sunday Sevilla v Levante (1100), Espanyol v Villarreal (1500), Valencia v Athletic Bilbao (1700), Real Sociedad v Atletico Madrid (1900)