Barcelona play catch-up without Messi

Already well adrift of great rivals Real Madrid, Barcelona must face Sporting Gijon this weekend without top scorer and talisman Lionel Messi.

The 24-year-old added to the 28 goals he has scored in the Primera Division this season with his first international hat-trick in Argentina's 3-1 win against Switzerland on Wednesday but he must sit out Saturday's match at the Nou Camp through suspension.

Pep Guardiola's side have the opportunity to close the gap at the top of the table to seven points, with Real not playing until Sunday, and Barcelona president Sandro Rosell insisted this week they have not given up hope of a fourth successive title.

"The word impossible should exist, but not for this case," said Rosell. "Impossible is when mathematics say so. Meanwhile, nothing is impossible."

Sporting sit only one place off the bottom of the table but the game has been given added spice by coach Javier Clemente's comments this week that he did not like Barcelona's much-lauded style of football.

Their record against Barcelona is not good, with the Catalans having won the last nine meetings between the sides at the Nou Camp, while Sporting's only victory came in the 1986/87 season.

Madrid seek to maintain momentum
Real host Barcelona's city rivals Espanyol on Sunday looking to continue their seemingly relentless march to the title. Defeat by Barcelona in December is the only blemish on a perfect record dating back to a goalless draw with Racing Santander on 21 September.

Espanyol have slipped to eighth after a run of only two points from four games, so a trip to the Bernabeu could hardly come at a worse time.

However, midfielder Romaric, who scored his first Primera Division goal in a 4-3 win for Sevilla in Madrid in 2008, believes they should head to the capital with confidence. "I won with Sevilla and I think we can win," said Romaric, who is on loan at Espanyol from Sevilla until the end of the season.

"We must go without fear, and we are convinced was can do so. We will be faithful to our philosophy and even against a big team it will be a normal game."

Romaric also played down the significance of Espanyol's poor run, saying: "To me there is no problem and we're calm. There is no crisis."

Third-placed Valencia will look to get back to winning ways after back-to-back league defeats by Barcelona and Sevilla when they travel to Granada on Sunday.

Los Che are currently five points ahead of Levante, who host Real Betis on Monday, while fellow European hopefuls Athletic Bilbao take on Real Sociedad and Malaga travel to Getafe.

Also on Saturday, Rayo Vallecano meet Racing Santander and Sevilla host Atletico Madrid while on Sunday strugglers Villarreal face bottom side Real Zaragoza.