- Associated Press - Friday, December 2, 2016

MADRID (AP) - With the “clasico” against Real Madrid coming up, there couldn’t be a better time for Lionel Messi to end his scoring drought.

Barcelona has been struggling and desperately needs a victory to stay in the Spanish league title race, and Messi could help turn things around on Saturday if he can find the net after five scoreless games against Madrid.

Barcelona enters the game at Camp Nou six points behind Madrid, and another setback could leave the Catalan club in a difficult position to fight for a third straight league title.

Messi hasn’t played badly in recent matches against Madrid, but his last goal against his biggest rival came almost three years ago when he had a hat trick in a 4-3 win at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

The Argentina playmaker hasn’t scored in the five games since, not even in the stunning 4-0 win at the Bernabeu last season, when he came off the bench in the second half after a long injury layoff. Barcelona has won two of the last five games against Madrid, but it’s been 400 minutes since Messi last scored.

“We all know what kind of player Messi is. He is one of the best in the world,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said Friday. “We will have to keep an eye on him, but not only on him, because all of their players are very good.”

Since Messi’s hat trick in March 2014, Cristiano Ronaldo has attracted most of the headlines in the “clasico,” scoring three times, including the late winner at Camp Nou last season that ended Barcelona’s record 39-game unbeaten streak.

“They’re two exceptional players,” Zidane said. “Cristiano is doing exceptional, incredible things. I hope he carries on like this.”

Messi remains the all-time leading scorer in the “clasico” with 21 goals in 32 matches, but at Camp Nou it’s been Ronaldo who has thrived the most.

The Portugal forward has 10 goals in 12 games in Barcelona, including five in the last five matches and eight in the last nine. He failed to find the net only in four of those 12 games. Messi netted only five times in those same encounters.

Ronaldo has scored in each of the last two league games at the Camp Nou. He has 16 goals in 25 matches between the rivals, behind only Messi (21) and Alfredo Di Stefano (18).

Messi has 15 goals in the 25 matches in which he and Ronaldo faced each other, one less than Ronaldo.

Barcelona is coming off three consecutive draws, two in the league and one in the Copa del Rey, while Madrid has won six in a row.

“We are playing at home, against our rival, it doesn’t matter if we are one point or 100 points behind in the standings,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. “It’s always a special game.”

Barcelona will be boosted by the likely return of Andres Iniesta, who has recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him in late October.

“It’s great news for us,” Luis Enrique said. “He is a reference of Barcelona’s style of play.”

Madrid will be without Gareth Bale because of an ankle injury. Zidane’s immediate reserve in the attack, Alvaro Morata, is also out because of a hamstring ailment, so Lucas Vazquez is expected to play up front along with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

Madrid is riding a 32-game unbeaten streak in all competitions, but Zidane said his squad will not be playing safe in Barcelona.

“It’s not only Barcelona that needs to win this game. We also need these points,” Zidane said. “We are ahead but it doesn’t mean anything. We don’t think about drawing, winning or losing, we think about giving our best and the result is a consequence.”


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

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