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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Balancing act of staying unbeaten in the Primera Liga while going for the Uefa Champions League is challenge for Barcelona and Lionel Messi

The Catalans have had a great season so far but face a demanding final few weeks of the campaign

Barcelona's Lionel  Messi is on target to play 72 games for club and country this season. Quique Garcia / EPA
Barcelona's Lionel Messi is on target to play 72 games for club and country this season. Quique Garcia / EPA

Barcelona’s attempt to become the first Spanish team to stay unbeaten for an entire Primera Liga season will face its toughest test on Saturday with a visit to Sevilla – the team they will also meet in the Copa de Rey final on April 21.

Barca, who are 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid with only nine games to play, also have to face Real Madrid at home in May, but Sevilla away has long been one of their trickier away games, one where Barca failed to win in their 2014-15 treble season and where they lost the following year.

Older Barca fans still have unhappy memories of the venue where Terry Venables’ Barca side lost the 1986 European Cup finals their to underdogs Steaua Bucharest.

Barcelona, who have won their last four games against Sevilla, will be encouraged that Atletico Madrid put five past their opponents away last month. Real Madrid did the same.

Sixth in the table and inconsistent, the Andalusians pushed Barca hard in a 2-1 defeat at Camp Nou in November.

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Their players are on a high after knocking Manchester United out of the Uefa Champions League with a win at Old Trafford and they will face Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals with the first game at home on Tuesday.

That is Sevilla’s priority and there is a belief that they can win a first ever Champions League, a view not shared by the wider football community.

Sevilla fans are realistic and know there are teams with better players, but they also think their team comes alive in big European matches and can point to their recent successes in the Europa League.

Fourteen points behind Valencia in fourth, Sevilla will not finish in the top four to qualify for next season’s Champions League. They have lost 12 of their 29 league games, scored only 37 goals and have a minus goal difference.

They also lost both their league games since the win in Manchester, including against a Leganes side who had won only two of their previous 16 matches, yet Sevilla can surprise.

More or less everything is in Barcelona’s favour on Saturday. All their key players are fit and Lionel Messi has shown no sign of fatigue, despite the likelihood that he will end this season having played 72 games for club and country. His previous highest was 69, in 2011-12.

Barca, who are also unbeaten in Europe and host Roma next week in the Champions League last 16, have all their players back – although not all in one piece - from international duty.

Messi will doubtless take some chiding from Barca’s Spain contingent who were in the side which beat Argentina 6-1 – even though he sat wincing in the stands.

French international Lucas Digne returned with an injury and will be out for three weeks. Though not a key player, the defender would have undoubtedly featured as Barca have so many games – at least eight in 30 days from Saturday. Messi, Gerard Pique and Andrew Ter Stegen all had medical tests on Thursday, with Barça confident that they can play against Sevilla.

Barca have other challenges. Samuel Umtiti, a technically excellent defender who has more than proved his worth since signing from Lyon in 2016, wants to earn more and knows he can does so in the Premier League.

Barca want to keep Umtiti, the Cameroonian born player who has become a key man for France, but with their stadium re-development beginning and a need to get their salary ratio down, are looking at alternatives to the 24-year-old.

Andres Iniesta is another Barca would like to stay – and fans have been singing ‘Iniesta stay’ chants during recent matches. Only Xavi has played more games in the Catalans’ history than Iniesta, but he is set to move to China.

Iniesta turned 34 in May and while Philippe Coutinho was bought as his replacement and has started well since his move from Liverpool, Iniesta still has the ability to change a game at the highest level.

Iniesta could earn more in China, but Barca will be hoping that by May he will be basking in the glow of more trophies – and an unbeaten league season.