x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

'Saint Iker' looking for a helping hand

The destination of the Primera Liga title will be decided tonight with Barca host Valladolid and Real at Malaga.

Iker Casillas will be praying Barcelona slip up at home to Valladolid today.
Iker Casillas will be praying Barcelona slip up at home to Valladolid today.

BARCELONA // The destination of the Primera Liga title will be decided tonight. Barcelona, the league leaders, are favourites and host a Valladolid side fighting relegation. Barca, chasing a club record 99 points, are one ahead of Real Madrid who travel to a Malaga side needing at least a draw to stay up. Malaga have not won in ten games and have been criticised for their aggressive style this season.

The Real players and management were rewarded a day off on Friday and held a farewell lunch for Christoph Metzelder, the German defender - who is joining Schalke - before watching tennis in the Spanish capital. The mood was good, because while Real are likely to finish the season empty-handed, they are set to accumulate a club record 98 points. Iker Casillas, the goalkeeper, has again been one of Real's best performers. Known at "Saint Iker" in Spain for his stopping heroics, his profile has risen further recently after he started dating the beautiful sports journalist Sara Carbonero, a move which turned the couple into gossip magazine regulars.

Casillas's greatest chance of silverware may come at the World Cup with Spain, but he has been satisfied with Real's commitment this season. "This season has been great because it has come down to the last game and anything can happen," he told a news conference. "Things can change in a matter of seconds, but we have to take care of our business by beating Malaga. Once we finish we will see what Barcelona have done. If we don't win the league with 98 points then it is because another team deserves it more. But reaching that mark and scoring 100 goals have made for a great competition."

As a Madrileno, Casillas also opined that he was happy rivals Atletico Madrid had won the Europa League this week. He added that while he was upset that Real were eliminated early in both the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League, he was optimistic about the club's future. "I hope this project is allowed to grow and gain confidence," he said. "We are a new team, there were many changes in the club last summer and I believe in the project. I find [coach] Pellegrini calm and coherent and we stand by him," he added.

Rivals Barca will be missing Xavi against Valladolid through suspension, but Andres Iniesta should be back after six weeks out injured. Barca are unbeaten at home, with Lionel Messi set to win the pichichi with 32 league goals so far. The Catalans beat Valladolid 3-0 away in January and have ten more points than at the same stage last season - though they did ease off after winning the league with two games to spare.

Five teams could still be relegated, with three going down. Valladolid, Racing Santander, Malaga and Tenerife are all on 36 points, while Xerez, the bottom side, are on 33. All have tough games, but given that Xerez have won just once in their first 19 games, they have excelled to remain in with a fight until the last day of the season. Xerez are at mid-table Osasuna. Tenerife travel to third-placed Valencia.

Racing entertain neighbours Sporting Gijon, who are also safe. Few would be surprised if Racing won, with more than a whiff of conspiracy evident after the regional president talked of "a brotherhood between Asturias [Sporting] and Cantabria [Racing]." Such talk has, understandably, outraged their rivals. sports@thenational.ae Barca v Valladolid, Aljazeera Sport + 3; Malaga v Real, Aljazeera Sport +4, both 9pm