La Liga's big two hindered by World Cup anxieties

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The Independent Football

The prospect of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo being able to go on holiday together next June while lesser mortals pack their bags for the World Cup in South Africa remains, and the physical and mental well-being of their two most important players will weigh heavily on the minds of Barcelona and Real Madrid coaches Pep Guardiola and Manuel Pellegrini as they prepare for tonight's La Liga fixtures.

Both have to decide between resting their down-in-the-mouth superstars after international duty or trying to put smiles back on their faces by putting them back into winning teams. Pellegrini looks set to start with Ronaldo against Espanyol in the hope a match-winning performance will lift his spirits.

Guardiola is expected to take Messi to Getafe but start him on the bench. The Argentine at least retains the hope of a play-off lifeline into next summer's tournament. Not that it will be any consolation to Barcelona who would lose him for a crucial period in November less than a week before a decisive three-day period in which they entertain Internazionale in Europe and go to Real Madrid.

Barcelona players and supporters have rallied around Messi after 48 hours of criticism in Argentina questioning whether he should even be in country's first XI. His national team-mate and Espanyol defender Nico Pareja said: "Leo is living through a very difficult situation in Argentina but he is still the best player in the world."

Player of the week: Cristiano Ronaldo

*Cristiano Ronaldo's performances are being affected by anxiety over living up to his price tag, according to Real Madrid's sporting director Jorge Valdano. Ronaldo plays his second Real game of the season tonight, away to Espanyol, with fans still waiting for the magic that made Real pay Manchester United £80m for the winger.

"I liked his first game," Valdano said of Ronaldo's debut against Deportivo La Coruña. "He scored, although it was a penalty, and there were a couple of nice touches. Maybe he is a bit anxious. He is so professional and he is always trying to be the best but we will have to wait a few games to see the real Ronaldo."

Whispers, emanating mainly from Barcelona fans, that Ronaldo is not the same player away from Sir Alex Ferguson, a theory strengthened by his failure so far to lead Portugal into next year's World Cup finals, would be silenced by one spectacular goal.