Barcelona enters final stretch with Messi at his best
MADRID: Barcelona enters the final stretch of the Spanish league with Lionel Messi going through his best stretch of the season.
Messi has scored 12 goals in his last eight games, helping Barcelona to a comfortable eight-point lead over Atletico Madrid and a 12-point advantage over third-place Real Madrid.
Neymar thrived early in the season and Luis Suarez had been hot until recently, but now it's Messi who has taken over.
The five-time world player of the year is the team's top scorer in the last 10 games for Barcelona, which hasn't been seriously challenged by any of its rivals. The team is enjoying a record 35-game unbeaten streak.
"Our players up front have been key," Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said.
Barcelona will play at Eibar on Sunday with Messi coming off a hat trick in the 5-1 rout of Rayo Vallecano on Thursday.
If he can lead Barcelona to another win which would be the team's 11th in a row in the league Messi would be only 10 games away from clinching his eighth Spanish league title with the Catalan club.
Here are other things to watch in the Spanish league this weekend:
Still without several regular starters because of injuries including Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale coach Zinedine Zidane is expected to rely on Real Madrid's youngsters again when the team hosts Celta Vigo on Saturday.
Forward Lucas Vazquez and 18-year-old striker Borja Mayoral impressed in the team's 3-1 win at last-place Levante on Wednesday, and could be back in the starting lineup at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
Zidane said Vazquez is "committed," and noted that Mayoral is the immediate reserve on the attack because of his "confidence and personality."
"The important thing is to have everyone available," Zidane said.
Madrid is trying to secure third place in the standings to guarantee an automatic spot in the Champions League next season. It has a four-point lead over Villarreal, which hosts Las Palmas on Saturday.
Brazilian striker Neymar will miss Barcelona's game at Eibar because of an accumulation of yellow cards.
Neymar was shown his fifth yellow of the season after a late foul in the team's 5-1 win at Rayo Vallecano on Thursday.
Neymar had a great start to the season but scored only twice in the last nine games. He has 18 league goals, seven less than top scorer Luis Suarez.
Atletico Madrid plays at Valencia on Sunday looking to rely on good defense once again.
Jan Oblak has kept a clean sheet for more than 500 minutes and is the goalkeeper with the least amount of goals conceded in Europe. He has allowed only 11 league goals, two less than Manuel Neuer with Bayern Munich. Gianluigi Buffon has conceded 14 goals with Juventus in the Italian league.
Oblak, who recently renewed his contract with Atletico until 2021, hasn't allowed a goal in the last five games, including against PSV Eindhoven in the Champion League.
The last time he conceded a goal was in the 46th minute of Atletico's 3-1 win against Eibar in the Spanish league.
Russian striker Denis Cheryshev, who made headlines after Real Madrid was disqualified from the Copa del Rey because he was ineligible, has been key for Valencia and is likely to start against Atletico Madrid on Sunday.
Cheryshev scored two game-winners for Valencia in the last five matches, including one that snapped the team's winless streak under coach Gary Neville.
Valencia has won five of its last six games in all competitions.
"I think we are in a good moment," Neville said. "We are fighting well."