Madrid, Barcelona set to kick off run of clasicos
Barcelona can move closer to a third straight Spanish league title by beating Real Madrid on Saturday in the first of four matches against its main rival in 18 days, and Johan Cruyff wants his former club to stay focused on the task.
Barcelona leads the league by eight points ahead of the match at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and will be looking to extend its winning streak over Madrid to six matches. Madrid, however, will be desperate to erase the humiliation of the 5-0 loss in November.
Madrid coach Jose Mourinho and Barcelona counterpart Pep Guardiola say they will start their best teams despite meeting in the Copa del Rey final four days later. The clubs will also clash on April 27 and May 3 in the Champions League semifinals.
Cruyff wants Barcelona to avoid the distractions of the Champions League and Copa del Rey with only seven rounds of the league remaining, saying a sweep of the four games is not "normally" possible due to strength of both clubs.
"The most important thing (of the three) is always the league, it's a long-distance thing. You don't need to be lucky, you have to play well the whole way," Cruyff said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.
"In the Champions League, you can have injuries, a little luck, a little bad luck - so a lot of things can happen in a short competition. So, for me, the league is always very important."
Cruyff expects revenge to be Mourinho's top priority after the largest defeat of the Portuguese coach's career.
"Let's see if he saw something different and will do something different," said Cruyff, adding that he expects Mourinho to focus on the other two tournaments.
"He's got difficulties in the league because Barcelona is quite far ahead, so he's got two more options and he has to play everything in these two options because he of course hopes to achieve something."
Madrid's players have also had to contend with a daily reminder of the drubbing, which was recently turned into an advertising campaign in the Catalan capital with images of Barcelona players displaying their hands to celebrate the five goals.
"Anything can happen. With this, he who laughs last, laughs best," Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo said. "Barcelona's players are not of another world, just the best in the world like ours. The team which makes the fewest errors will win."
Madrid striker Karim Benzema returned from a leg injury to play in Wednesday's 1-0 victory at Tottenham from Ronaldo's goal.
Ronaldo has now scored in three straight games as he looks to catch Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, who has a league-high 29 goals to lead the Portugal forward by one.
Madrid attackers Angel Di Maria, Mesut Oezil, Emmanuel Adebayor and Gonzalo Higuain are all available and will be looking to capitalize on the absence of injured Barcelona defenders Carles Puyol (knee) and Eric Abidal (liver tumor).
With both defenders unlikely to return for any of the four matches, defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets is likely to plug the gap in Barcelona's depleted backline.
"They are basically the most powerful team in all senses, at their strongest and in their best moment with an unstoppable squad," Guardiola said of Madrid. "We accept the task of trying to beat them."
Messi scored a club-record 48th goal on Tuesday in the Champions League quarterfinals against Shakhtar Donetsk, moving closer to becoming the first Spanish league player to reach the half-century mark.
But the Argentina international has yet to find the back of the net in eight games against Mourinho-coached clubs, while Ronaldo has yet to score against Barcelona.
In other games, it's: Malaga vs. Mallorca; Getafe vs. Sevilla; Almeria vs. Valencia; Levante vs. Hercules; Real Sociedad vs. Sporting Gijon; Deportivo La Coruna vs. Racing Santander; Osasuna vs. Athletic Bilbao; Espanyol vs. Atletico Madrid; and Villarreal vs. Zaragoza.