Barcelona aims to keep Madrid at bay in league
Barcelona seeks to bounce back from an unconvincing midweek display
in the Champions League when it hosts Malaga, while Real Madrid
attempts to close a two-point gap on the leader when it visits
Tenerife in the Spanish league on Saturday.
Barcelona salvaged a 1-1 draw from its visit to Stuttgart in the round of 16 first-leg game although it was a sub-par performance by the champion.
"If you're not quite right things are hard," said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. "The result isn't bad but we know we have to do better if we want to push for titles."
A recent concern for the Catalans has been the form of striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede has scored 12 league goals in his first season in Spain and he equalized against Stuttgart. However, since Christmas his scoring has slowed and Guardiola said his movement off the ball needs to improve.
"He moves, but sometimes it's hard to find him," said the coach. "I want him to score goals because a No. 9 is judged on that basis."
Although Barcelona beat Racing Santander 4-0 in the league last weekend it was an uninspired showing which prompted former Barcelona player and coach Johan Cruyff to call it the "worst game of the Guardiola era."
Saturday's opponent Malaga struggled near the bottom of the table early in the season but is now 12th after a four-game unbeaten run.
With 56 points, two less than Barca, Real Madrid knows it could go top this weekend if the champion slips up.
With Tenerife in the relegation zone, Madrid should be confident of winning in the Heliodoro Rodriguez Lopez Stadium. However, in the corresponding fixture in 1992 and 1993, losses to Tenerife in the final game of the season handed Barcelona the league title and Madrid will be wary of dropping points.
A 1-0 loss against Lyon in the Champions League on Feb. 16 was a rare blip in a run in which Madrid has won five league games in a row.
Jose Maria "Guti" Gutierrez appears to have recovered from an injury although he is still a doubt for Saturday. If Guti does not play, coach Manuel Pellegrini could replace him with Lassana Diarra. However, the France midfielder's ability to combine with Xabi Alonso was questioned earlier in the season.
"I don't have any problem with Xabi Alonso," Diarra said. "I think we can both play in the team. We're all Real Madrid players and we're available to the coach, who is the one to decide."
Also, third-place Valencia visits Atletico Madrid on Sunday. Valencia is on 46 points, 12 off the lead, and is aiming to stay in the Champions League spots, while 13th-place Atletico is aiming to find some consistency in an erratic league season.
One of Atletico's problems has been in goal, with first-choice goalkeeper David de Gea injured and Sergio Asenjo enduring a crisis of confidence which has at times sparked the ire of his own fans.
"The Calderon has more than enough reasons to boo me but I'm trying to turn the situation around," said Asenjo. "I need to improve my performances to change the boos to applause."
A string of fine saves during Atletico's 1-0 defeat to Almeria last weekend will have doubtless helped change the fans' opinion.
Also Saturday it's: Getafe vs. Zaragoza.
On Sunday, it's: Xerez vs. Espanyol; Villarreal vs. Deportivo La Coruna; Valladolid vs. Mallorca; Racing Santander vs. Almeria; Sporting Gijon vs. Osasuna; and Sevilla vs. Athletic Bilbao.