- Associated Press - Thursday, December 1, 2016

MADRID (AP) - Barcelona’s chances of winning the Spanish league this season could be determined by whether Andres Iniesta is fit to play in Saturday’s “clasico” against Real Madrid.

Having Iniesta available this weekend at Camp Nou could make the difference between clinching a third straight title or seeing Madrid snap a four-year winless drought.

Barcelona has been struggling without the midfielder, and another setback could leave the team nine points behind and in a difficult position to fight for the title.

Iniesta has been sidelined since injuring a right-knee ligament on Oct. 22. Doctors said he would be out 6-8 weeks, but the recovery process has been going well and Barcelona coach Luis Enrique expects the midfielder to play.

“We are waiting for Iniesta to be cleared,” Luis Enrique said earlier this week. “It should be more or less a formality, he has been practicing with us and is in good condition. We are waiting to confirm, but he should be available.”

Had it been any other match, the midfielder would likely be rested to avoid aggravating the injury, but Luis Enrique may not be in position to afford himself that luxury this time.

All of Barcelona’s four losses this season came without Iniesta in the starting lineup - to Alaves, Celta Vigo, Espanyol and Manchester City. The 32-year-old Iniesta also wasn’t with the team in recent league draws against Malaga at home and at Real Sociedad, and couldn’t play in the 1-1 draw against third-division club Hercules on Wednesday in the Copa del Rey.

Luis Enrique has tried several different alternatives to replace Iniesta, but none fully filled the void left by the Spain midfielder.

Among the players used in Iniesta’s position are Denis Suarez, Rafinha, Andre Gomes, Ivan Rakitic and Arda Turan. Some did well protecting the defense, some succeeded creating scoring opportunities, but none showed the all-around talent that Iniesta brings to the team.

Barcelona’s recent inability to cope with Iniesta’s absence could actually work in favor of the midfielder, who has yet to extend his contract with the club and is soon expected to start negotiations.

The consecutive draws ahead of the “clasico” left Barcelona players feeling discouraged and struggling to explain the team’s poor performances, but Luis Enrique didn’t expect the setbacks to play a role on Saturday.

“It won’t affect us at all,” he said. “We are now focused on one of the most important matches of this tournament and we have the motivation of facing our main rival.”

Contrary to Barcelona, Madrid has been thriving recently, winning five games in a row and enjoying a 32-game unbeaten streak. The last time it played at Camp Nou, Madrid defeated Barcelona 2-1 despite playing the final minutes with 10 men.

“It’s a good match against a great opponent who will certainly make it difficult for us and that’s all there is to it,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “We have to be prepared.”


Tales Azzoni on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tazzoni

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