MADRID (AP) — The pressure is on Barcelona to keep the pressure on Real Madrid.
The defending champions, who lead the Spanish league on the head-to-head tiebreaker but have played one game more than Madrid, will need to be at their best on Saturday against a Villarreal team with the league’s second-best defense.
“We have to win every match until the end to keep putting pressure on Madrid,” Barcelona forward Luis Suarez said.
Villarreal won’t be an easy opponent, even with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Suarez all looking for goals. The team has conceded fewer goals than any team except for Atletico Madrid. It’s also in the chase for a Champions League spot, currently in fifth place.
Barcelona, however, has scored a league-leading 104 goals, and it is also carrying momentum after four consecutive victories that included a 7-1 rout of Osasuna and a 3-2 win over Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium two weeks ago. The Catalan club scored at least three goals in each of its last four games.
Its attacking trio is only two goals short of a 100 for the season in all competitions. Messi alone has scored 49 goals, including 33 to lead the Spanish league. Suarez has 34 goals and Neymar 15. The three scored a record of 131 goals last season, and had 122 in 2014-15.
“We know how difficult it is to play against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. They have the best players in the world and are fighting for the championship,” said Argentine defender Mateo Musacchio, one of the main players in Villarreal’s well-organized team. “But we also have a lot to play for, and we will go out there and give our best.”
Villarreal is five points behind fourth-place Sevilla, the last team currently securing a Champions League spot. The teams in fifth and sixth places will play in the Europa League.
Villarreal’s solid defense, which has conceded only 28 goals in 35 league matches in the first season under coach Fran Escriba, starts with the efforts of veteran captain Bruno Soriano in the midfield, and continues with the reliable performances of Musacchio and central defender Victor Ruiz, who could miss Saturday’s game because of an injury.
Barcelona, trying to win its second consecutive Spanish league title, may count on the return of midfielder Andres Iniesta, who missed the game at Espanyol last weekend because of a right leg muscle injury.
Villarreal drew the last two matches it played against Barcelona, but it hasn’t beaten the Catalan club since 2008.
“It will be key to keep a clean sheet,” Musacchio said. “We know how hard that is, but we need to be able to do that and then take advantage of our chances.”
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.