Barcelona suffer familiar February chill amid Real revival

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The Independent Online

Barcelona need to overcome their recent dip in form at Mallorca tomorrow to protect their five-point lead over Real Madrid in La Liga. The Spanish champions, began the month by setting a league record of 16 straight wins but have since stumbled in a 2-1 Champions League loss at Arsenal and were unconvincing in a 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao last weekend.

Barcelona will be without their midfielder Xavi Hernandez, defender Carles Puyol and goalkeeper Victor Valdes. But Lionel Messi, the Fifa World Player of the Year who is the top scorer in La Liga with 25 goals, returned to training yesterday after a few days working alone in the gym. Jefferon Suarez also trained with the squad more than a month after being sidelined by a leg injury.

"Every game is dangerous, especially when Madrid is winning all of its games and doesn't look set to drop off," the Barcelona striker David Villa said. "To be leaders and depend on ourselves is a privilege we need to hold on to."

Since Pep Guardiola took over as coach in 2008, Barcelona have struggled in February, failing to win a Champions League game in that month and dropping points in the league. But Mallorca, 11th in the league, have managed just one victory in their past six games.

Madrid play at Deportivo La Coruña tomorrow having won three straight league matches. The team drew 1-1 at Lyons in the Champions League on Tuesday, when Karim Benzema scored and showed improved form, which could prove vital in the final stretch of the season. "He's back," Zinedine Zidane, the adviser to Real's chairman, Florentino Perez, said of Benzema. "He's in good form."

Madrid are without the midfielder Sami Khedira owing to a leg injury, while Deportivo are expected to play the Mexican forward Andres Guardado for the first time since December. Deportivo are 13th in the table and three points above the drop zone. In their last game, against Almeria, Daniel Aranzubia headed an equaliser five minutes into second-half injury time to become the first goalkeeper to score from open play in league history.

Third-placed Valencia, 17 points behind Barcelona, play at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday. Atletico Madrid should have both Argentina striker Sergio Aguero and Uruguay forward Diego Forlan available for tomorrow's game against Seville.

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