Madrid: Real Madrid and Barcelona face two Clasicos in four days next week but La Liga’s greatest rivals are not so much revving up for the double-header but crawling reluctantly towards it.
This weekend, Barca travel to fourth-placed Sevilla on Saturday and Madrid to Levante on Sunday, when priorities, rest and rotation will all be high on the agenda again.
Santiago Solari pointed to exhaustion following his team’s latest loss at home to Girona, four days after they came from behind to beat Ajax, eight after defeating Atletico Madrid and 11 after holding Barca to a draw at the Camp Nou.
“The fatigue is not only physical, it is mental, it affects our concentration,” Solari said.
“Obviously we have come from an important period, with a lot of hard games. We have to overcome it because it might be that our energy levels dipped in the second half.”
Girona were outplayed in the first period but scored twice in the second, both goals coming in the final 25 minutes, to end what had begun to look like a serious Real resurgence in the title race.
Instead, Barcelona now own a nine-pont cushion over Real, seven over Atletico, and even if that lead is dented this weekend, there remains room for error ahead of the league game at the Santiago Bernabeu.
By then, the two clubs will already have squared off in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final, in the same stadium, where Madrid’s motivation might be greater given Barca have won the cup four times in a row.
The dilemma for Solari is that preserving key players against Levante risks another slip which, combined with Barca winning at Sevilla, would surely spell the end of any fading title hopes.
“We will continue fighting on all three fronts that we have open,” Solari said. “We have to keep trying to reduce the gap.”
The most disappointing aspect of their defeat to Girona was that Barcelona have been stumbling themselves, a stodgy 1-0 win over Real Valladolid doing little to restore confidence after three consecutive draws.
A stalemate away to Lyon in the Champions League on Tuesday should not prove too damaging to their chances of progress but Barca have now scored only twice in four matches. Luis Suarez has lost form and Lionel Messi appears yet to have regained full fitness.
“I would worry if we did not create any chances,” coach Ernesto Valverde said in France. “Football is all about results. But I get more nervous if the opposition are missing chances.”
Valverde has more wiggle room than Solari, both in the league, due to his team’s healthy advantage, and the cup, which comes a distant third this season in the club’s list of priorities.
Messi could even sit out any, or all, of the next three games in a bid to be sharp for the business end of calendar.
But momentum is on the line too. Defeat to Sevilla would swell the sense of a dip while succumbing to Real, in either match, let alone both, could knock morale just as much as it might boost their opponents.
Perhaps most buoyant are Atletico Madrid, fresh from their 2-0 triumph over Juventus at a bouncing Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday.
Diego Costa was busy on his first start in almost three months but Alvaro Morata impressed off the bench.
A front three with Antoine Griezmann could compromise the Frenchman’s attacking freedom, which leaves Diego Simeone with his own selection problem ahead of Saturday’s game at home to Villarreal.
Sevilla have managed only one win in their last eight league games and could drop out of the top four if they are beaten by Barcelona.
Espanyol v Huesca (midnight)
Getafe v Rayo Vallecano (4pm), Sevilla v Barcelona (7.15pm), Alaves v Celta Vigo (9.30pm), Athletic Bilbao v Eibar (11.45pm)
Leganes v Valencia (3pm), Atletico Madrid v Villarreal (7.15pm), Real Valladolid v Real Betis (9.30pm), Levante v Real Madrid (11.45pm)
Girona v Real Sociedad (midnight)