MADRID - La Liga leaders Barcelona were
buoyed by the news on Thursday that Lionel Messi should be fit
to face Villarreal on Saturday while rivals Real Madrid have a
mountain of absentees after the international break.
Messi, La Liga's joint top scorer this season, is level on
27 goals with Real's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo who is
still recovering from a muscle problem, and could edge ahead
when they face third-placed Villarreal.
The World Player of the Year pulled out of Argentina's
friendly against Costa Rica on Tuesday as a precaution but tests
on the adductor muscle in his right leg on Thursday showed there
was no muscle damage.
"I have spoken to Messi and his feelings are positive,"
reserve goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto said at a news conference.
"He is feeling good despite the minor problems he is
suffering. We all know Messi and his competitive spirit but the
most important thing is his health. He is the one who best knows
himself and he will know if he is able to play," he added.
The prolific Messi's presence will be crucial against
Villarreal as Barca seek to preserve their five-point lead over
Real, whom they play at the Bernabeu in just over two weeks.
That game will be the first of at least two, and potentially
four, meetings between the great rivals, who clash in the final
of the King's Cup on April 20 and could meet home and away in
the Champions League semi-finals at the end of April and
beginning of May.
With nine matches left, Barca have 78 points, Real have 73
and Villarreal are on 54, level with fourth-placed Valencia but
ahead thanks to a superior goal difference. Valencia play at
Getafe on Saturday.
Real coach Jose Mourinho may have to make significant
adjustments to his team for Saturday's game at home to Sporting
Gijon after the club were hit by what is known in Spain
as the "FIFA virus".
In-form France striker Karim Benzema and Brazil full-back
Marcelo returned from international duty nursing injuries, a
further headache for Mourinho ahead of Tuesday's Champions
League quarter-final first leg at home to Premier League club
Brazil playmaker Kaka is yet to return after hurting the
left knee that was operated on after the 2010 World Cup, while
central midfielder Xabi Alonso is suspended for the Gijon match
due to accumulation of yellow cards.
Benzema's absence would be a severe blow, although his
strike partner Gonzalo Higuain has resumed training and may make
his return following back surgery at the start of the year.
If Benzema and Higuain are unavailable, the goal-scoring
onus will likely fall on striker Emmanuel Adebayor, on loan from
Premier League club Manchester City.
"We have nine games to go, we have to win all those games to
start dreaming of the title," Adebayor told Real Madrid
Television on Thursday.
At the other end of the table, bottom side Hercules can
improve their chances of avoiding relegation with a win at
fellow promoted club Real Sociedad on Sunday.
Malaga, in 18th, are bidding for a third straight victory
when they play at Levante.
On Monday, 19th-placed Almeria host Athletic Bilbao, who are
sixth and closing in on qualification for a place in European
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