MADRID (Reuters) - La Liga leaders Barcelona have hit a familiar mid-season slump as a congested calendar has taken its toll on their squad, and coach Ernesto Valverde must decide whether to rest key personnel for Saturday’s trip to fourth-placed Sevilla.
Barca have a seven-point lead over Atletico Madrid at the top of the standings and are nine ahead of great rivals Real Madrid, giving their coach breathing room to shuffle his pack as they chase both European and domestic glory.
The Catalans are in control of their own destiny in the Champions League, but a disappointing goalless draw at Olympique Lyonnais means they must defeat the French side in the return leg to advance.
After playing Sevilla in the league, Barcelona visit Real on Wednesday for the second leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final, with the tie delicately balanced after the first leg ended in a 1-1 draw.
“I’ve been here a long time and historically we always have a bit of a dip in February and March which costs us in three or four games,” defender Gerard Pique said.
“It even happened when Pep Guardiola was coach. We just need to... try our best to get some good results even if we don’t feel we’re playing that well.”
Real will seek to bounce back from last weekend’s disappointing home defeat by Girona when they visit mid-table Levante on Sunday.
Local media reported that club president Florentino Perez met coach Santiago Solari in the wake of Girona’s historic victory in the Spanish capital, with the Argentine under increasing pressure because of Real’s erratic form.
The European champions, who have shown uncharacteristic defensive vulnerability in recent weeks, will be without captain and centre back Sergio Ramos, who is suspended after being dismissed at the weekend.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, however, is confident Real are coming along nicely as the business end of the season approaches.
“I’m convinced we’re going in the right direction,” the Belgian said. “Our game has improved tremendously since the start of the season.”
Earlier on Sunday, Atletico will try to tighten their grip on second place when they take on struggling Villarreal - a team coach Diego Simeone has never beaten since he took charge in 2011.
Athletic Bilbao host Eibar in a Basque derby on Saturday.
Reporting by Joseph Cassinelli; Editing by Simon Jennings