Depleted Barca to field makeshift defence

MADRID - Barcelona will protect their unbeaten La Liga record with a makeshift defence when they visit Atletico Madrid on Sunday for a fixture that traditionally produces a blizzard of goals.

The leaders are without suspended centre-backs Gerard Pique and Rafael Marquez while Daniel Alves, Eric Abidal and Dmytro Chygrynskiy are injured.

Midfielder Yaya Toure, who sometimes plays at the back, is also injured which leaves Carles Puyol, Gabriel Milito and Maxwell as the only recognised first-team defenders available.

Barca's trips to the Calderon are popular with neutrals for their unpredictable nature, their last three league visits producing a total of 19 goals.

Atletico's Argentina striker Sergio Aguero inspired the locals to 4-3 and 4-2 victories in the last two seasons while three years ago Barca won 6-0.

"It's unfortunate so many players are succumbing to injury, particularly in defence, but there is no link between the cases," Barca midfielder Xavi told reporters.

"We have people to cover the gaps and youth-team players who can be called up to help."

Barca have a five-point lead over second-placed Real Madrid. Atletico, who are languishing in 12th, also face a King's Cup semi-final second leg at Racing Santander later on Thursday.


Real travel to basement club Xerez on Saturday and are expected to have reduced Barca's lead to two points ahead of the match at the Calderon.

"We have to beat Xerez and after that I'll become an Atletico fan," Real's Dutch midfielder Rafael van der Vaart told reporters.

Real coach Manuel Pellegrini will have Cristiano Ronaldo back from his two-match suspension but France striker Karim Benzema is out with a muscle injury.

Xerez have improved since new coach Nestor Gorosito took the helm last month and in their previous home game they surprised fourth-placed Real Mallorca 2-1 to claim only the second win of their maiden top-flight campaign.

Third-placed Valencia visit Sporting Gijon on Saturday and Mallorca travel to Tenerife for the first Monday night game since the Spanish footballing authorities agreed to re-introduce the concept with Gol Television.