La Liga

La Liga preview: Messi, Falcao face off in showpiece

This looks tasty. The Colombian striker leads his second-placed side to the Camp Nou tomorrow.

BARCELONA CAN KICK nine points clear at the top of the table when they face Atletico Madrid in Sunday’s La Liga action.

The clash at the Nou Camp pits Tito Vilanova’s table-toppers — who are yet to taste defeat in the league this season — against an Atletico side that are also flying high.

Matches between the sides placed first and second on the La Liga table, particularly 15 matches into the season, are usually reserved between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

But Real’s cross-town rivals have been in stunning form so far, winning 12 times largely thanks to the form of Colombian forward Radamel Falcao.

Falcao, who is a transfer target of UEFA Champions League winners Chelsea, has bagged 16 goals in his 14 La Liga fixtures this season.

The former Porto striker will enter the game fresh off a stunning five-goal haul in Atletico’s 6-0 home win over strugglers Deportivo La Coruna on Monday and the likes of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique will need to be on their game to stop the 26-year-old.

Of course, Barcelona have an in-form striker of their own – with pint-sized Argentine Lionel Messi simply unstoppable this season.

Messi – who now has 88 goals in the calendar year for club and country, breaking the record set by German Gerd Muller – has scored 12 times in his past seven matches. He also has 23 goals in 15 league fixtures this season.

While the battle of the two forwards will be vital, the match is likely to be won in the midfield. With Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas all at Vilanova’s disposal, the likes of Arda Turan, Raul Garcia and Cristan Rodriguez must play well for Atletico if they want to come away from the match with anything other than a defeat.

Atletico are five points above third-placed Real, who entertain Espanyol at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday. Real will enter the game desperate to bounce back from a 2-1 loss to Celta de Vigo in the Copa Del Rey on Wednesday. But they should have far too much quality for an Espanyol side who have not won in their past six matches and sit 19th on the table.

By Cristiano Ronaldo’s standards, four goals in an 11-game period is a drought of sorts and Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho needs the Portuguese star to hit form if they are to challenge Barcelona this season. Other matches this weekend see Malaga, who sit fourth, on the road to face Sevilla while Real Betis, who are flying high in fifth, are at Celta de Vigo on Monday.

Bottom-placed Deportivo La Coruna are also in action on Monday and they could go as high as 16th if they manage to defeat Real Vallodolid at home. Getafe will look to extend their unbeaten record in the league to five when they welcome the visit of Osasuna on Saturday, while Real Mallorca play Athletic Bilbao and Granada take on Real Sociedad on the same day.

Levante have started the season well and are away at Real Zaragoza on Sunday while the weekend’s other match sees an out-of-sorts Valencia host Rayo Vallecano.

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