Andy Brassell on European Football: Barcelona search for their La Liga window

Barcelona's Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi has, predictably, been at the heart of Barcelona's surge in form

A wounded Barcelona might just smell blood in the title race, writes Andy Brassell, as Bayern's challengers look to make the most of their absence in Germany and Gennaro Gattuso clings on at Napoli...

"Lionel Messi and company have won 10 of 11 fixtures so far in 2021 and are playing their best football of the season."

Barcelona aim to pile on Atlético pressure

Facundo Ferreyra's Celta Vigo debut certainly caught the imagination. Having just arrived on a free from Benfica, the Argentinian striker nudged in a last-gasp equaliser at Atlético Madrid on Monday night to stop Diego Simeone's team re-establishing a double-digit lead at the top of La Liga and, according to some, reigniting the title race by doing so.

Despite Real Madrid closing the gap at the top to five points by beating Getafe - Zinedine Zidane's side have played two games more, though - the sense is that Barcelona are the most likely to challenge, despite being roundly ridiculed for much of the current campaign. Lionel Messi and company have won 10 of 11 fixtures so far in 2021 and are playing their best football of the season.

The raw numbers are still very convincing in Atleti's favour. They are La Liga's second top-scorers on the back of Luis Suarez's Indian summer - he scored another two against Celta - and more predictably have the division's best defensive record. Yet they have leaked four in their last two games and have a few absentees through COVID, including João Félix, and few others coming back from it. If Barça are to make up ground, it feels like it must be now.

Back Granada and Atlético to draw at 3.412/5

Best of the rest with chance to close Bayern gap

Bayern Munich weren't the first winter trippers from Berlin to get delayed by snow and ice but Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was furious about the seven-hour delay on their journey to Qatar for the Club World Cup following their Friday night win at Hertha. The CEO's overreaction said a lot about the pressure on the German champions and their relentless schedule of the moment.

It's fortunate for them, then, that their Bundesliga rivals have found it so difficult to keep to the pace. Borussia Dortmund are struggling to even make the top four at the moment, fellow Champions League last 16ers Borussia Mönchengladbach are a place lower still after a surprise derby loss to Köln and Bayer Leverkusen's 5-2 win against Stuttgart at the weekend broke a dismal run of three defeats in the previous four.

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This means it's all on RB Leipzig, seven points adrift of Bayern as stands, to try and make the run-in satisfying for neutrals. Unsurprisingly, Julian Nagelsmann are playing down their title hopes - "Bayern are miles ahead and we have to run our own race," said midfielder Marcel Sabitzer this week - but the absence of Hansi Flick's side gives them the opportunity to apply a little pressure. With the current turnover of games throwing up surprises, Leipzig need to be ready to take any opportunity.

Back under 2.5 goals in Leipzig's game with Augsburg at 2.56/4

Gattuso playing for his future

Gennaro Gattuso is not a man who gravitates towards easy jobs. From his famous press conference rant while in charge of OFI Crete to narrowly missing out on the Champions League with Milan (with the scale of the latter achievement clear when the Rossoneri struggled after his exit), the former Italy midfielder always seems to be putting out fires.

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He came into an unenviable situation at Napoli too when he arrived in late 2019, with the club wrought with behind-the-scenes fallouts and Serie A underachievements. Gattuso steadied the ship, got now-club record goalscorer Dries Mertens back on board and won the Coppa Italia.

Yet here he is, playing for his future after some underwhelming recent results. Wednesday night's Coppa semi-final elimination at Atalanta turned up the pressure and drew focus squarely on Saturday's showdown with Juventus. The coach was even asked after the Atalanta defeat whether the Juve game represented his last chance -"you'll have to ask the club," he replied - but Napoli badly need a result against Andrea Pirlo's team, who aren't playing with great style but are relentlessly rattling off results of late, in familiar style.

Back Juventus to win at Napoli at 2.1211/10

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