La Liga Preview: Barca, Real Madrid hit the road

Lionel Messi's first La Liga start for more than two months could come in his side's trip to Levante on Sunday.

Table-topping Barca have not had the luxury of selecting Messi from the start in a league game since November 10, when he limped off with a hamstring injury in a 4-1 win at Real Betis.

The star striker returned to his native Argentina for treatment and has appeared off the bench in both the league and the Copa del Rey this year.

Two late goals as a substitute in Barca's 4-0 Copa del Rey win over Getafe earlier this month showed he is not far off his best and he also impressed in the club's goalless draw at Atletico Madrid on Saturday.

That match – which failed to live up to its heavyweight billing as both sides cancelled each other out in a goalless stalemate – saw the Catalan giants retain their lead at the top of the league.

Gerardo Martino's men are only goal difference ahead of Atletico, though, and will hope to win their sixth successive La Liga fixture against Levante in a bid to create some breathing space.

The two sides met in August this season at Camp Nou, with Messi and Pedro scoring doubles as Barca began their title defence with a thumping 7-0 win.

Fresh off a 2-0 Copa del Rey win over Valencia on Tuesday that sent them into the last eight, Atletico host Sevilla, also on Sunday.

Diego Simeone's side are unbeaten in 18 matches in all competitions and will hope Diego Costa gets off the mark in 2014 to break a four-game goal drought.

Real Madrid closed to within three points of the leading duo with victory at Espanyol last weekend and they face another away test.

Carlo Ancelotti's side will be heavy favourites on Saturday to defeat rock-bottom Real Betis, who have not won in the league since September.

Real's Cristiano Ronaldo will be boosted by his FIFA Ballon d'Or victory on Monday, when he beat Messi and Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery to win the prestigious award.  

Malaga host Valencia in Friday's match, while Elche take on fellow strugglers Rayo Vallecano in a relegation six-pointer on Saturday.

Other fixtures on Saturday see Granada battle Osasuna and Espanyol meet Celta Vigo, while out-of-form Getafe host Real Sociedad and Almeria travel to Villarreal one day later.

And on Monday, Athletic Bilbao welcome the visit of Real Valladolid.


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