Barcelona starts toughest stretch at Malaga
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Runaway Spanish leader Barcelona travels to fourth-place Malaga on Sunday to enter its toughest period of the season with five of its next eight games away from the Camp Nou.
Lionel Messi, fresh from collecting his record fourth world player of the year award, will lead Barcelona with his league-best 27 goals. Barcelona is aiming to reach the season's midway point unbeaten after winning 17 games and drawing just once.
Barcelona and Malaga will then meet twice more over the next two weeks in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals.
"These three games against Malaga will be difficult," said Barcelona goalkeeper Jose Pinto, who handles the Copa games while Victor Valdes plays in the league. "We will have to see how the two teams handle the mental wear and tear, which above anything else will be determined by the results."
Atletico Madrid is 11 points behind Barcelona and hosts Real Zaragoza on Sunday.
Real Madrid - 16 points off Barcelona's pace in third - will try to avoid another slip at last-place Osasuna on Saturday without the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo and its defense in tatters.
While Barcelona shows no signs of slowing down, its stumbling chasers' last hope of catching the Catalan club resides in the bumpy road the coming weeks offer.
After the game at Malaga, Barcelona has subsequent trips to in-form Real Sociedad, Valencia, Granada and archrival Madrid. It will also pursue its Copa defense and start the Champions League knockout rounds against Italian side AC Milan.
Barcelona will face its packed calendar with coach Tito Vilanova and assistant Jordi Roura sharing coaching duties while Vilanova continues chemotherapy and radiotherapy after his recent surgery to remove a tumor from his throat.
Vilanova, who has led Barcelona to a league record start in his first season since taking over from Pep Guardiola, will not be on the touchline for Sunday's game. He has reportedly gone to New York to continue his treatment on a second tumor in two years, according to the Spanish press.
"Just because Tito isn't physically with us doesn't mean that our philosophy will change," Pinto said. "He will be present in his way."
Messi will most certainly be back in Barcelona's starting lineup after sitting out Thursday's 5-0 win over second-tier club Cordoba as it eased into the next round of the Copa del Rey. David Villa and Alexis Sanchez both took the rare opportunity to star by scoring two goals apiece with Messi watching from the bench.
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