MADRID: A Barcelona side missing injured Lionel Messi face Sporting Gijon in the first of three away games in a week, as they battle to keep pace with La Liga leaders Real Madrid on Saturday (Sunday in Manila).
Messi suffered the recurrence of a groin strain in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid that will keep the five-time World Player of the Year sidelined for the next three weeks.
His absence could have a bigger impact on Argentina than Barca because the two-time world champions will be without their captain for World Cup qualifiers against Paraguay and Peru.
However, Spanish champions Barca have three tricky obstacles to overcome in the next week as they head also to Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Champions League on Wednesday before another away trip to Celta Vigo next Sunday.
“We all wish that he was with us. The team is stronger with him than without him, but these unexpected situations happen,” Barca captain Andres Iniesta said on Thursday.
“Squads win titles. Individuals help, but it is the squad as a whole that wins things.”
Without Messi, Barca’s other two star forwards Luis Suarez and Neymar will be expected to take on extra responsibility — just as they did in scoring 16 goals in the six league games Messi missed during a two-month injury layoff last season.
Sergio Busquets also came off early against Atletico due to the after-effects of a fever, but should be fit to start in Asturias.
Arda Turan is the favourite to replace Messi after deputising ably on the other side of the Barca frontline when Neymar was absent at the start of the season because of his participation in the Rio Olympics.
One familiar face to Barca may not be available for Sporting due to a comical injury — on-loan Brazilian full-back Douglas injured his hip when sleeping on the team bus back from a 2-1 defeat to Celta Vigo on Wednesday.
Real missing duo
Real Madrid’s bid to make La Liga history with a 17th straight win fell short in midweek as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Villarreal.
Zinedine Zidane’s men still hold a three-point lead over Barca, but face an awkward trip to the Canary Islands to face Las Palmas before a huge Champions League clash against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday.
Madrid are also depleted by injury: Brazilian duo Marcelo and Casemiro have been ruled out for the next few weeks.
The European champions are short of a natural replacement in either position with Danilo set to deputise at left-back, whilst Toni Kroos is likely to drop into the deepest-lying midfield role to make way for Luka Modric to return.
Las Palmas’s excellent start to the season was undone on Wednesday by a 4-1 thrashing at Real Sociedad. Former AC Milan midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng will miss Madrid’s visit after being sent-off in the first-half in San Sebastian.
Second-placed Sevilla could go top for at least a couple of hours when they travel to face the in-form Athletic Bilbao earlier on Saturday.
Atletico are the only one of Spain’s four Champions League representatives not in action till Sunday, when Deportivo la Coruna visit the Vicente Calderon in a grudge match still overshadowed by fan violence.
Two years ago a Deportivo fan was killed in Madrid in pre-match clashes between rival ultra groups near the Calderon.