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HindustanTimes Sun,31 Aug 2014

Football

Top spot under threat for Neymar-less Barcelona
AFP
Madrid, December 20, 2013
First Published: 08:58 IST(20/12/2013)
Last Updated: 08:59 IST(20/12/2013)

Barcelona will have to do without both Neymar and Lionel Messi as they try to ensure they finish 2013 at the top of La Liga when they visit Getafe on Sunday.

Neymar had just hit top form in front of goal for the first time since his summer arrival from Santos with six goals in Barca's previous three games.

However, the Brazilian has already travelled back to his homeland for an early Christmas break after picking up a suspension with his fifth yellow card of the season in last weekend's 2-1 win over Villarreal.

With Messi also still recovering from his hamstring tear, the focus will be on Cesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez to score the goals needed to keep Barca on top.

Pedro has seen his opportunities diminished by the arrival of Neymar and Sanchez's good form this season, but the Spanish international has stressed his intention to fight for his place in Gerardo Martino's side.

"When you play less you don't necessarily feel less important, but it is true that it is a different feeling when you don't get so many minutes on the field," he said.

"What I need to do is fight to try and achieve my objective which is to stay at Barcelona."

Barca did receive a boost on Thursday with the news that Andres Iniesta is to sign a new deal that will keep him at the club until 2018.

And with Fabregas set to play in the false nine role, Iniesta should be restored to the starting line-up in midfield alongside Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets.

Getafe will also face Barca in the next round of the Copa del Rey as both sides eased through their fourth-round ties in midweek.

Midfielder Angel Lafita admitted his side have a better chance of downing the Catalans in a one-off game than in a two-legged tie, but isn't convinced Barca will miss Neymar and Messi too much.

"In one game a lot can happen. When it is 180 minutes, normally consistency is the most important thing.

"In that aspect Barcelona are very strong, they are the best in the Spanish league and, therefore, it is possible we have more chance of sneaking something out of the league game.

"It is obvious they are missing two of the best players in the world, but they also have Pedro, Cesc, Alexis and many others that are also playing very well and can replace them perfectly well."

Given Barca's lack of goalscoring options, Atletico Madrid have a great chance to be top of the league at Christmas for the first time since 1995 as they host Levante at the Vicente Calderon on Saturday.

Atletico trail Barca only on goals scored and will move top as long as they better Martino's men's result at Getafe.

Diego Costa will return for Diego Simeone's side after being rested in the Copa del Rey in midweek, and he too is looking to finish the year on top La Liga's scoring charts after moving level with Cristiano Ronaldo on 17 with a double in last weekend's 3-0 win over Valencia.

Real Madrid also face a tricky encounter to close the year as they travel to Valencia.

Madrid's defensive crisis has been eased by Sergio Ramos' successful appeal against his 18th red card for the club in last weekend's 2-2 draw away to Osasuna.

However, Pepe does remain suspended as he picked up his fifth yellow of the campaign, whilst Raphael Varane's on-going knee problems mean Nacho will start alongside Ramos at the heart of the defence.

Gareth Bale is also expected to be fit to play despite missing Wednesday's 2-0 win over Olimpic Xativa in the Copa del Rey due to a calf injury and Ronaldo returns after being suspended in midweek.


Fixtures (all times GMT)

Friday
Elche v Malaga (1930)

Saturday
Villarreal v Sevilla (1500), Real Betis v Almeria (1700), Atletico Madrid v Levante (1900), Granada v Real Sociedad (2100)

Sunday
Espanyol v Valladolid (1100), Getafe v Barcelona (1600), Athletic Bilbao v Rayo Vallecano (1800), Valencia v Real Madrid (2000), Celta Vigo v Osasuna (2000)


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