Messi primed for Catalan derby after Ballon d'Or snub

GERMAN PRESS AGENCY - DPA
BARCELONA
Published

After overtaking Sevilla last week to return to the top of La Liga, Barcelona is looking to build momentum against local rivals Espanyol in a Catalan derby on Saturday.

Although Barcelona has suffered a recent injury crisis with Samuel Umtiti, Sergi Roberto and others out of action, Lionel Messi's good form has helped it come through it unscathed.

The Argentine forward has three goals and three assists in his last four games across all competitions.

Messi was ranked fifth in the Ballon d'Or vote standings on Monday as Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric ended Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's decade-long hegemony on the trophy.

After being rested for Barca's comprehensive 4-1 Copa del Rey round of 32 wins over Cultural Leonesa on Wednesday, Messi is fresh and has a point to prove.

"We congratulate Modric for winning the Ballon d'Or but Messi being in fifth place is absurd," Barca coach Ernesto Valverde said. "I will not get into discussing the inconsistencies of the prize."

Messi has nine goals in La Liga, trailing top scorer Cristhian Stuani, who has 11 strikes for Girona, and Celta Vigo's Iago Aspas on 10. Teammate Suarez has nine as well and the duo is expected to link up again on Saturday, with Suarez returning after taking stem cell treatment on a knee problem. The Uruguayan hit man is expected to feature against Espanyol and then return to the treatment table, missing the Champions League match against Tottenham on Tuesday.

The top of the table is tightly packed and just seven points separate the league leader from its crosstown opponents.

Espanyol started the season brilliantly and despite a recent dip in form saw them fall to seventh, confidence is high in Cornella.

Even though traditional nemesis Real Madrid has struggled this season, champion Barcelona has not been able to move clear at the top, struggling to maintain a string of good results.

Second place Sevilla travels to Valencia, while Atletico Madrid, third, hosts Alaves, fourth, both earlier on Saturday in a pair of exciting fixtures.

On Sunday, Santiago Solari's Real travel to minnows Huesca, the bottom of La Liga, and will look to build on their record of six wins from seven games since the coach took charge.

Solari has made some big decisions since taking over, including installing Thibaut Courtois as the first choice goalkeeper and treating Isco as a reserve instead of a key player. It appears his work is paying off, with Madrid keeping clean sheets in five matches since his appointment, having been notably leaky under predecessor Julen Lopetegui.

One player on the way back to his best is Ballon d'Or winner Modric, who looked tired at the start of the season after leading Croatia to the World Cup final in Russia. "He's had a wonderful year and he's given everything to Real Madrid and his national team," Solari said. "[The award] comes at a time of maturity in his career. "It seems to me that at that age it's more beautiful because he can truly value it. We're all very happy with his prize."

The weekend's other fixtures are Leganes vs. Getafe, Villarreal vs. Celta Vigo, Espanyol vs. Barcelona, Eibar vs. Levante, Real Sociedad vs. Real Valladolid, Real Betis vs. Rayo Vallecano and Athletic Club vs. Girona.

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