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MADRID (AP)—The anticipation surrounding Lionel Messi is building as Barcelona plays Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday in a match that could go a long way to deciding which team wins the Spanish league title.
Messi scored four goals Tuesday to lead defending Champions League winner Barcelona to a 4-1 win over Arsenal and into the semifinals.
Messi’s sublime performance has instilled concern in Madrid over how to stop the Argentina forward, who has scored 39 goals in all competitions to surpass his total last season.
“I don’t talk about myself. Ever,” Messi was quoted as saying in Thursday’s El Mundo newspaper. “I don’t like it and I don’t want to. All I want to do is play football and do the things well. The truth is for me, it’s a great honor that all of these things are being talked about.
“I don’t know what you would call the moment I’m in right now but it’s definitely a good one.”
Madrid and defending champion Barcelona have 77 points at the top of the standings. Madrid, which won nothing last year, leads on goal difference with eight rounds left. Valencia, which is third with 56 points, takes on Mallorca.
Barcelona has won three straight matches against its bitter rival, including a record 6-2 win at Santiago Bernabeu stadium last season on the way to claiming the title and leading to Madrid’s massive offseason buying spree.
Madrid spent more than ?250 million ($363 million) on Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso and others, but another early European exit leaves it with only the league to win.
“Real Madrid has invested a lot of money to form a great team,” Messi said. “They did it, they have great players and they’ll fight to the end, that’s for sure. It’s only normal after everything they’ve done in the summer.
“But in the end, it’s the players not the money which plays. It’s a team filled with great players and any one of them can influence the match.”
Kaka and Benzema are not certain to play due to groin strains, leaving Ronaldo to carry the load. The Portugal forward, who has 18 goals to Messi’s league-leading 26, missed good chances in a 1-0 loss at the Camp Nou earlier this season.
Madrid will also counting on Gonzalo Higuain, who is second to Messi with 24 goals.
“We have Cristiano, one of the best at deciding a game and, secondly, we have a revelation at striker with Higuain,” Madrid midfielder Jose Maria “Guti” Gutierrez said. “Barca also has to worry about us.”
Madrid-based sports daily Marca led with the headline “And how do we stop this guy?” following Messi’s performance.
“It would be ridiculous to think about just defending one player,” Guti said. “You can’t plan to mark just Messi because then (Thierry) Henry, (Zlatan) Ibrahimovic, (Andres) Iniesta, Bojan (Krkic) or Pedro (Rodriguez) appear.”
Ibrahimovic remains in doubt due to a thigh muscle tear, while Iniesta has recovered from a similar injury. Barcelona is missing France defender Eric Abidal because of a thigh problem, while center back Gerard Pique’s participation will likely be decided just before the game.
Barcelona has won four, lost two and drawn one in matches against Madrid in which Messi featured. The world player of the year has scored six goals in those seven games.
“It’s always been like this with my life. Since my debut, everything’s happened so fast,” Messi said. “But you have to live it with calmness. I’m relaxed, I’m always relaxed. I’m doing what I always wanted to do, which was to play football.”
Overall, Madrid has 68 wins to Barcelona’s 61 with 30 draws, although the Catalans have won three straight.
In other matches this weekend, it’s: Malaga vs. Sevilla; Tenerife vs. Valladolid; Villarreal vs. Sporting Gijon; Xerez vs. Getafe; Deportivo La Coruna vs. Racing Santander; Athletic Club vs. Almeria; Osasuna vs. Zaragoza; and Espanyol vs. Atletico Madrid.
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