Testing trip awaits Barca


MADRID. — Barcelona conclude a busy week on-and-off the pitch with a visit to Real Sociedad, where the runaway Spanish soccer league leaders are winless in La Liga going back to 2007.

Philippe Coutinho completed his 160-million-euro move from Liverpool on Monday in the third richest transfer in history, although a thigh injury will prevent the Brazilian from making his debut tomorrow.

Barca sealed another deal on Thursday for Colombia centre-back Yerry Mina, the towering 23-year-old joining on a five-year deal from Palmeiras to fill the void left by the expected departure of Javier Mascherano to China.

Ernesto Valverde’s team then cruised into the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey with Lionel Messi scoring twice in a 5-0 second-leg demolition of Celta Vigo at the Camp Nou on Thursday night.

Barca remain unbeaten as the season hits its halfway point and hold a nine-point lead over nearest rivals Atletico Madrid, with defending champions Real Madrid languishing 16 points off the pace.

But aside from a 1-0 win in last season’s Copa del Rey courtesy of a Neymar penalty, Barca have struggled at Anoeta in recent times with their last league success there coming under Frank Rijkaard in May 2007.

Five wins in six have kept Atletico in the title hunt, but Diego Simeone’s side also face a tricky assignment today away to Eibar, whose unrivalled return of 19 points from a possible 21 since mid-November has propelled them to seventh.

“Ipurua is a very complicated place. We’ve always managed to get the three points there, but it’s a difficult place. We have to be humble,” said Atletico midfielder Saul Niguez, who is expected to return after missing a 2-0 win over Getafe through suspension.

“The first half of the season was positive. We had difficulties: new stadium, the first few matches away from home, we couldn’t sign players, but the team responded well.

“We’re going to play the second half of the season with a lot of enthusiasm.”

Real host sixth-place Villarreal after also sealing their place in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey following an unconvincing 2-2 draw at home to second-tier Numancia that secured a 5-2 aggregate win. “A draw is not the best result, but we’ll continue to do our job in a positive way and at some point we’ll see the results of this hard work,” said coach Zinedine Zidane, who confirmed he has signed an extension with Real until 2020.

“We’re getting back to what we know and we’ll do so calmly and with no problem at all. All the questions and what you’re saying about poor playing style… that may be the case but we’re convinced that we’re going to come out the other side.”


Today: Girona v Las Palmas (2pm); Real Madrid v Villarreal (5:15pm); Eibar v Atlético Madrid (7:30pm); Deportivo La Coruña v Valencia (9:45pm).

Tomorrow: Levante v Celta de Vigo (1pm); Deportivo Alavés v Sevilla (5:15pm); Espanyol v Athletic Club (7:30pm); Real Sociedad v Barcelona (9:45pm).

Monday: Real Betis v Leganés (10pm).

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