Xavi Hernandez says Barcelona can "take charge" of this season’s Spanish title race by beating co-leaders Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
Both teams go into the game at the Estadio Vicente Calderon with a phenomenal 49 points from 18 games, five ahead of nearest challengers Real Madrid, with no other teams in sight.
Speaking while picking up a Barca fans’ award for fair play, the Catalan playmaker said the Primera Division clash gives Barca a chance to steal a march on their title rivals.
“The game against Atletico is vital for the outcome of the league -- it might not turn out to decide things, but a win would lay down a marker,” Xavi said. “We are coming into the game with some good form. We will try and take charge and let's hope we see a good performance.”
The pressure will be on Barca coach Gerardo Martino to get his selection calls right, and he is believed to have decided to play fit-again Lionel Messi from the start after the attacker returned from two months out with thigh problems to score twice in Wednesday’s 4-0 Copa del Rey win over Getafe.
Cesc Fabregas also notched a double in that game, but may be benched on Saturday, with Martino expected to play Messi in the false-nine role and in-form Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez on the wings.
Neymar has returned to full training after missing the Getafe outing due to a stomach bug, but could be kept on the bench given Pedro and Alexis are in such impressive goalscoring form at present, with the duo also being asked to keep an eye on Atletico’s dangerous full-backs Filipe Luis and Juanfran Torres.
Atletico did a good job of keeping Barcelona’s attackers quiet in August’s Spanish Supercopa encounters, with the Catalans winning the trophy on away goals having scored just once across the two legs.
Rojiblancos left-back Filipe told Al Primer Toque that he expected a similarly close affair, but stated he is hopeful Atletico could nick it this time.
“The Supercopa games reflect what could happen in Saturday’s game,” the Brazil international said. “Barcelona, obviously, will have possession and we will be very compact as always, closed up and doing damage on the counter. Tata Martino will have a lot of problems to choose, he has many options, we do too, but well, not at the same level.
“We are going to try, with a lot of humility, to play our game. The boss studies opponents very well, and he tells us very well what we need to do. I'd go for a 1-0.”
Atletico coach Diego Simeone’s preparation means Atletico know so much about their opponents already that Atletico keeper Thibaut Courtois told Radio Marca that he had not bothered doing any further research by watching Wednesday’s Copa game between Barca and Getafe.
“[Simeone] has already shown us a video to study the key points,” Courtois said. “When you are at home you want to relax. I was playing the Playstation.”