Football

Luis Enrique keeps Barca troops grounded

LAS PALMAS v BARCELONA

Tonight, 11pm, StarHub TV Ch 202

Barcelona manager Luis Enrique will take nothing for granted as his men aim to close in on the Primera Liga title.

The Catalan giants moved six points clear of Atletico Madrid when they won their match in hand 3-1 at Sporting Gijon on Wednesday night.

With Real Madrid seven behind, Barcelona also boast a better head-to-head record against their rivals.

Barcelona are now on a record 31 matches since the last defeat at Sevilla in early October and, as such, it would appear to take a dramatic loss of form for Enrique’s squad not to go on to claim a fifth La Liga title in seven years.

Nevertheless, Enrique intends to keep everyone grounded, with a trip to relegation-battlers Las Palmas next up tonight.

“We are where we want to be and we depend on ourselves,” said Enrique. “However, we all know that when the final games of the season approach, especially the last 10, the teams in trouble begin to win games and it becomes difficult.”

There is little time for Barcelona to rest on their laurels as, following the trip to the Canary Islands, Enrique must prepare his squad for the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie away to Arsenal.

Defender Aleix Vidal maintains the players will continue with the same focus needed to deliver a successful end to the campaign.

SIGNIFICANT

“Victories mean we are doing things well, but we are not going to relax,” said Vidal. “We are having a good season and we have a significant margin (to second place in La Liga).”

Midfielder Ivan Rakitic echoed the team ethos that the hard work must continue.

“There are still plenty of games to play and a lot could happen. I don’t want to think about what might happen in two or three months’ time, but rather about what is going to happen this weekend,” said the Croatian.

Lionel Messi took his La Liga tally past 300 with a double at El Molinon. With one eye on the upcoming trip to London, Enrique could be tempted to rest the Argentine playmaker in Gran Canaria or another of the front three from Luis Suarez and Neymar.

Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves are all expected to return, while midfielder Sergio Busquets is suspended.

Las Palmas go into the weekend’s matches sitting 18th, but only a point behind Espanyol.

Whatever the outcome against the leaders, midfielder Juan Carlos Valeron is determined Quique Setien’s men will give a good account of themselves.

“It is important to give a good image and emerge stronger for the rest of the season,” he said.

"When the final games approach, the teams in trouble begin to win and it becomes difficult "

— Barca coach Luis Enrique

Today:

  • Las Palmas v Barcelona (11pm)

Tomorrow:

  • Espanyol v Deportivo (1.15am)
  • Real Betis v Sporting Gijon (3.30am)
  • Celta Vigo v Eibar (5.05am)
  • Rayo Vallecano v Sevilla (7pm)
  • Malaga v Real Madrid (11.55pm)

Monday:

  • Athletic Bilbao v Real Sociedad (1.15am)
  • Granada v Valencia (1.15am)
  • Atletico Madrid v Villarreal (3.30am)
  • All matches will be telecast LIVE on StarHub TV Ch 202 & 203.

Atleti’s Griezmann relishes vital week

ATL MADRID v VILLARREAL

Monday, 3.30am, StarHub TV Ch 202

Antoine Griezmann’s recipe for success is straightforward as Atletico Madrid prepare for three crucial games that could shape their season – hard work.

Atleti host fellow top-four side Villarreal on Monday morning, before a Champions League last-16 trip to PSV Eindhoven followed by the Madrid derby at the Bernabeu next weekend.

And winger Griezmann, who has amassed 19 goals in all competitions, is convinced Atleticowill kick off an important week on the right footing if they maintain the same attitude that has seen them win their last two La Liga matches.

“We are working hard to try to win all the matches we have left,” said Griezmann. “Now we have Villarreal, the Champions League and Real Madrid, three nice games and we will try to win all three and stay on our path of hard work and effort.”

This top-four clash is important for both teams. For Atleti, they have to do all they can to keep in touch with leaders Barcelona, while Villarreal can’t afford to give in-form Sevilla any encouragement in the race for the fourth Champions League qualifying spot.

MEANEST

It should be a tight affair at the Vicente Calderon. The visitors are the lowest scorers (30) in the top half of table, while Atletico have only scored five more and have the meanest defence, with just 11 goals conceded.

In fact, the last three meetings have ended 1-0, with Villarreal winning at the Caledron last term, as well as coming out on top at El Madrigal in September.

But Griezmann has cited the home crowd as a reason to think this clash will swing in Diego Simeone side’s favour.

“It will be difficult, they beat us last year,” said Griezmann.

“But with the support of the people, and the effort we put in for every game, everything will go well for us, for sure.

“I’m always happy to play at our stadium because people encourage and push us on, and that is what we need.”

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