x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Late night planes a drain in Spain

Barcelona are finding their popularity and success in the Spanish La Liga leads to late kick-offs, unpopular with players.

It's tough at the top, as Barcelona are finding out. This week saw the Catalans play at home to Real Madrid, then away to Xerez in distant Andalusia at 10pm on Wednesday night. That game saw the players arrive home at 4am. The late kick-off times are scheduled for television, but they are unpopular with players for several reasons, one being that the team plane is often prevented from flying after midnight at certain Spanish airports which means another night in a hotel. On Saturday night, Barca play in La Coruna against in form Deportivo at 10pm. They will then return to Barcelona to spend some precious time with their families. And spare a thought for any travelling fans who cannot afford to go by plane - it would take 11 hours each way to drive to Xerez and La Coruna from Barcelona.

It takes much more to drive to Abu Dhabi for the forthcoming Fifa Club World Cup, but that has not stopped one fan who is driving in a car bedecked in Barça colours via Iran. He set off two weeks ago. Barça's great talent is that they are taking every challenge in their stride. They are coming to the close of their greatest ever calendar year in which they have won all five trophies possible so far, the highlight being the treble in Rome to conclude a magical 2008/09 season. It seemed impossible to better, but Barça's league record this season is better than at the same stage last year.

Pep Guardiola warned at the start of the season that it was going to be difficult to match last season's historic achievements, but his side have already equalled the record for the longest winning start to the season and have broken the record for the most points after 13 games, with 10 wins and three draws so far. Barca consolidated their lead at top of the table with a two goal victory over Xerez which moved them five points clear of Real Madrid, though Manuel Pellegrini's side have a game in hand. Barça's second was scored by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who continued his spectacular start at his new club with and an average of a goal every 90 minutes. His nine league goals so far put him one behind Valencia's David Villa in the top scorers' chart, but the powerful Swede is the most efficient.

He has started in eight games and come off the bench in three more, the perfect impact substitute with goals in all three including two this week against Madrid and Xerez. Saturday's game will be another difficult test against one of the surprise teams of the season. Deportivo, whose wage bill is ?65 million (Dh359m) a year compared to Barça's ?405 million, are fifth with eight wins after 11 games - an enviable record considering they lost two of their first three matches. Depor's form from the last eight matches in the best in Spain. The Galicians, a side once renowned for producing attacking talents, have scored just 17 goals in their 12 games so far - the same at Atletico Madrid in 18th - but the have made those goals count with six of their eight wins being by a single goal margin.

They could go joint second if they beat Barca, who laboured over bottom of the table Xerez. Aware of the difficulty, Guardiola said: "We have to lift ourselves because in Depor we are playing one of the strongest teams in the league." In the night's other games, Real Madrid entertain an Almeria side managed by their former star striker Hugo Sanchez. They are hoping to bounce back from their el clasico defeat with a seventh consecutive home victory. Defender Pepe is optimistic. "We have proved that we can compete for the league. We are two different teams with two different mindsets, but the Barca game was very even," he said. Third placed Sevilla are at home to Valladolid, while at the bottom Atletico Madrid go to Xerez. amitten@thenational.ae Deportivo La Coruna v Barcelona, 1am, Aljazeera Sport +2