Barcelona heads to Sevilla with unbeaten record on the line

Ernesto Valverde has a chance to better Pep Guardiola's record unbeaten run as Barcelona manager.

Lionel Messi trained ahead of Saturday's fixture, indicating he could be back in action having missed Argentina's international friendlies.   -  AP

The last time a club was this close to an unbeaten season in La Liga, it came unstuck at Sevilla.

Barcelona, with concerns over the fitness of Lionel Messi, travel to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium on Saturday, looking to extend its own undefeated run this term to 30 league games.

It was Real Sociedad which had gone 32 matches without a defeat in the 1979-80 season, when it was only two more away from finishing the then 34-game season as invincible.

But, in the penultimate match, Sevilla snatched a 2-1 win thanks to Ricardo Bertonis double, his second an 83rd-minute winner. Sevilla would finish eighth that year, Sociedad second, one point behind Real Madrid.

Read: Messi trains ahead of Barca's trip to Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan

Barca will almost certainly not surrender the league title if history repeats itself this weekend, its 11-point lead over Atletico Madrid surely too wide a gap to close, but it would give up the chance of being the first side to end a 20-team La Liga season unbeaten.

It is now three games away from matching Sociedad's best-ever single-season streak and two from equalling that same Sociedad team's longest run without loss overall, which amounted to 38 games when including the previous season too.

After Sevilla, Barcelona plays Leganes and Valencia at home, Celta Vigo and Deportivo La Coruna away before hosting Real Madrid on May 6. It then finishes at home to Villarreal, away to Levante and at home to Sociedad.

This Sevilla, although sixth and set to miss out on Champions League qualification, arguably represents Barcelona's biggest obstacle in those final nine fixtures.

Valencia, which is fourth, and Real, which would certainly revel in scuppering the bid, will offer stern tests but both at least come at the Camp Nou. Barcelona has not lost a league game on its own patch in 19 months.

Coach Ernesto Valverde has never attached much significance to the unbeaten streak, preferring to focus his players' gaze on the title, but as that prize becomes increasingly secure, he might see it as a welcome bonus.

“We're delighted with how things are going and that record says we must be doing something right,” Valverde said in February.

Bettering Guardiola

For his own legacy, it would give him something over Pep Guardiola, who oversaw only one league loss in 2009-10 and then 31 games undefeated in 2010-11, but never ended a season with a zero in the losses column.

Fatigue will certainly be a factor, and priorities too. Barcelona and Sevilla both have an opening leg of the Champions League quarter-finals to negotiate next week and, with their fates largely settled in the league, each may choose to rotate.

Sevilla is at home to Bayern Munich on Tuesday and Barca hosts Roma on Wednesday.

The Catalans face Valencia three days before the return fixture and, if they progress, Real the weekend after the second leg of the semi-finals. Rotation is inevitable.

For now, Lionel Messi is the key concern after he sat out both of Argentina's friendlies against Italy and Spain over the international break due to a hamstring complaint.

Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, meanwhile, is nursing a knee problem picked up on duty with Germany and Sergio Busquets is unlikely to be risked this weekend as he nears recovery from a toe injury.

Real has been less damaged by the international fixtures but Zinedine Zidane is also expected to have one eye on Europe when he picks his team to play Las Palmas on Saturday.

Flying to Gran Canaria ahead of the trip to Turin for Juventus on Tuesday is not the best of preparations and it is likely those that turn out this weekend may then be left out in Italy.

Gareth Bale, snubbed for both of the last 16 legs against Paris Saint-Germain, will be hoping his four goals in two matches for Wales last week have not gone unnoticed. Isco too, after he followed his hat-trick for Spain against Argentina by admitting he does not feel the same confidence at Real as he does with the national team.

Read: 'Isco would have continuity at Atletico Madrid'

Elsewhere, Europa League hopefuls Girona is at home to struggling Levante before second-placed Atletico Madrid entertains Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia visits Leganes on Sunday.

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Saturday

Girona v Levante (1300), Athletic Bilbao v Celta Vigo (1615), Las Palmas v Real Madrid (1830), Sevilla v Barcelona (2045)

Sunday

Espanyol v Alaves (1200), Leganes v Valencia (1615), Eibar v Real Sociedad, Malaga v Villarreal (1830), Atletico Madrid v Deportivo La Coruna (2045)

Monday

Getafe v Real Betis (2100)

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