On-fire Barca eye commanding La Liga lead

Madrid (AFP) –


Barcelona can open up a nine-point gap at the top of La Liga ahead of their return to Champions League action against Arsenal next week when they travel to Las Palmas on Saturday.

The European champions extended their unbeaten run in all competitions to 31 games with a seventh consecutive La Liga win thanks to a brilliant Lionel Messi double and Luis Suarez's 40th goal of the season in a 3-1 victory at Sporting Gijon on Wednesday.

That match had been postponed from December due to Barca's commitments in the Club World Cup and, having finally got their games in hand out of the way, Luis Enrique's men can pile the pressure on pursuers Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, who face on paper tougher tests on Sunday.

"There is still a long way to go and, therefore, nothing is done yet," said Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic.

"Now we have to focus on the game we have this weekend.

"The unbeaten record motivates us, but what counts is what you win at the end of the season. We need to remain humble and keep working hard."

Luis Enrique is expected to rotate once more with the trip to the Emirates in Tuesday in mind.

Sergio Busquets is suspended, while Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves are expected to return after being rested in midweek.

However, the star front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar are expected to start.

Zinedine Zidane's dream start to life as Real Madrid coach continued in midweek on his debut in the Champions League with a 2-0 win at Roma.

The Frenchman has now won six of his seven games in charge and has refused to give up in the title race despite now trailing Barca by seven points back in third place.

"It will be difficult, but we will go for it," said Zidane.

Madrid also face a tougher schedule in the league in coming weeks as they travel to Malaga -- who held Real to a 0-0 draw earlier this season at the Santiago Bernabeu -- before hosting Atletico in a Madrid derby next weekend.

"We need to rest well and think about the game in Malaga. On Sunday, we will do everything we can to get the points," added Zidane.

Atletico, meanwhile, face the biggest week of their season so far as they aim to remain in the title race and progress to the last eight of the Champions League for the third consecutive year.

Diego Simeone's men host fourth-placed Villarreal on Sunday before travelling to PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday and finally facing Madrid next weekend.

"They are three great games and we have to try and win all of them," Atletico's top scorer Antoine Griezmann told the club's website.

Villarreal look well set for a return to the Champions League as they hold an eight-point lead over Sevilla in the race for fourth place thanks to an 11-game unbeaten run in the league.

The Yellow Submarine beat Atletico earlier in the season and also won the last time the sides met at the Calderon last season.

"It will be a difficult game, but with our supporters, playing our way and giving it our all, I'm sure it will go well," added Griezmann.

The French international will need to be careful, though, as Griezmann is just one yellow card away from missing the derby.

Valencia coach Gary Neville eased the pressure on his job with his first La Liga victory at the 10th time of asking against Espanyol last weekend, following that up with a 6-0 win against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League.

Los Che are now seven points clear of the relegation zone and could even move into the top half with victory at Granada on Sunday.

Fixtures (all times GMT)


Levante v Getafe (1930)


Las Palmas v Barcelona (1500), Espanyol v Deportivo la Coruna (1715), Real Betis v Sporting Gijon (1930), Celta Vigo v Eibar (2105)


Rayo Vallecano v Sevilla (1100), Malaga v Real Madrid (1500), Athletic Bilbao v Real Sociedad, Granada v Valencia (both 1715), Atletico Madrid v Villarreal (1930)