European champions Barcelona will have to do without the injured Neymar for their final La Liga game before Christmas at home to Deportivo La Coruna before jetting off to the Club World Cup in Japan.
The Brazilian star’s absence due to a groin problem is a huge miss as he has been Barca’s player of the season given Lionel Messi’s recent two-month layoff due to a knee ligament injury, scoring 14 goals in just 13 league appearances.
Messi also missed training on Thursday due to personal reasons and was seen heavily stretching his hamstring towards the end of a depleted Barca side’s 1-1 against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday, but is expected to be fit to start.
Luis Suarez was left on the bench for the trip to Germany as the holders had already qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League, and will return seeking to score for his ninth consecutive game.
Barca were left to rue a host of missed chances last weekend as they conceded late to draw 1-1 at Valencia and allow Atletico Madrid to cut the gap at the top to two points with Real Madrid two points further adrift.
And they face another stiff test at the Camp Nou against a revitalised Deportivo la Coruna side that are enjoying a return to their glory days after a number of seasons bouncing between the top-flight and the second division.
Lucas Perez’s 10 goals have propelled the Galicians up to sixth in the table and he is happy for Barca to be distracted by their upcoming trip to Japan.
“It seems like Barca will be without Neymar which benefits us. If Messi, Suarez and (Andres) Iniesta also want to stay at home and save themselves for the Club World Cup, we’d accept it,” said Perez.
“We are going there to compete. They drew in their last match, but they are playing great football and are in their best form with the return of Messi.”
In contrast to Barca’s injury problems, Real Madrid coach Rafael Benitez finally has a fully-fit squad to choose from as he is expected to welcome back Sergio Ramos and Marcelo for Sunday’s demanding trip to fifth-placed Villarreal.
Madrid’s problems have continued this week as the club’s appeal against their expulsion from the Copa del Rey was turned down and star striker Karim Benzema suspended from playing for France due to his alleged part in a blackmail scandal.
However, on it they are fine form having smashed Malmo 8-0 to equal the biggest ever margin of victory in the Champions League on Tuesday with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring four and Benzema hitting his first hat-trick in five years.
That win was Madrid’s fifth in a row since being humiliated 4-0 at home by Barcelona last month and Ronaldo believes they are on the right track.
“It is normal at a club like Real Madrid when things don’t go well everyone is critical,” said the World Player of the Year.
“We are used to that, but little-by-little we are improving, the team is better and more confident. Five consecutive victories, we are on a good run and we need to continue like this.”
Barca’s brilliance and the madness at Real Madrid has taken the attention away from Atletico Madrid. However, Diego Simeone’s men can be top of the league at Christmas should they win their next two league games due to Barca’s Club World Cup commitments next weekend.
Atletico face a tough test themselves at home to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, though, as Europe’s best defence faces up to the triple threat of Aritz Aduriz, Inaki Williams and Atletico old boy Raul Garcia, who have already combined for 30 goals this season. Meanwhile, after a disappointing start to his managerial career as Valencia crashed out of the Champions League in midweek, Gary Neville gets his first taste of La Liga action as Los Che travel to Eibar.
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