x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

All aboard with high-speed Barca

Tonight Barcelona's players will travel by train to a game for the first time since the 2000 Spanish Cup final.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi flies past the Stuttgart defence in Tuesday's Champions League tie.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi flies past the Stuttgart defence in Tuesday's Champions League tie.

Tonight Barcelona's players will travel by train to a game for the first time since the 2000 Spanish Cup final. Pep Guardiola has been keen to reduce the hours his charges spend away from home and with Barca's unrelenting schedule and the Spanish custom of teams spending the night before home games in a hotel, the coach was worried about the impact on his players being away from their families for too long.

Before Christmas, Barca began allowing players to sleep in their own beds before most home matches. Exceptions have been big Champions League ties. Guardiola accepted his "Catalan of the Year" award from the team hotel on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday's brilliant 4-0 victory of Stuttgart. For some domestic away games, Barca have been chartering an aircraft on the morning of the match, lunching and resting in a hotel before the game and returning to Barcelona immediately afterwards. The players are much happier with the arrangement, their wives and children even more so.

Barcelona take on a resurgent Zaragoza tonight, and the Arragonese capital is a mere 90 minutes away on the new high-speed AVE train. After starting the season appallingly, Zaragoza have won four and drawn two of their last seven league games. A change of coach and several hastily acquired players in the January transfer window made a huge difference. Before that, promoted Zaragoza had won just three of their first 19 league matches and were heading straight back down. They are hardly out of the mire in 14th place, but they have created a five-point cushion between them and the relegation zone.

It is a tough game for Barca - joint leaders with Real Madrid on 65 points before this weekend's fixtures - but the Catalans are still buzzing off Lionel Messi's exploits in his last two matches. The Argentine followed up last Sunday's second half hat-trick against Valencia with another magical performance against Stuttgart in which he scored twice and set up another. Until Pedro made it 2-0 with his 17th goal of the season, Messi had scored the previous seven Barca goals.

"Messi's a great player, but we gave him far too much space," bemoaned Alexsandr Hleb, Stuttgart's on-loan Barca star. "If you do that you get punished. Still, Barca are the best team in the world and I think they are favourites to win the Champions League." Despite high ticket prices, the Catalan public are responding to such fabulous form. The Valencia game produced record gate receipts for a Barca game, while Wednesday's 88,000 crowd (inc-luding 6,000 travelling German fans) was Europe's biggest so far this season.

Barca have drawn Arsenal in the quarter finals, and Gerard Pique, the defender, said: "Arsenal are a tough team and I like the way they play. They move the ball around and they look to keep possession like we do, we have similar styles." As for Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal's Catalan captain who has been strongly linked with a move to Camp Nou, Pique added: "He is the one that creates the play and is the most important player in their team, though they have other good players that complement Cesc."

First, though, Pique and his teammates must board the train to Zaragoza, where the defender spent a season on loan from Manchester United in 2006-07. "They gave me my first chance in the league and I had some great times," said Pique. "Everyone helped me so much and I am very grateful." About Barca, he concluded: "The team is doing well and we have improved since February like we did last season. I hope that we can continue improving and go for both trophies."

Which is a more than reasonable ambition if Messi continues to work his magic. sports@thenational.ae