Zinedine Zidane described Karim Benzema as a "joy for football" as the Real Madrid boss prepared to welcome the striker back for Sunday's crucial derby with Atletico Madrid.

Madrid make the short trip to the Wanda Metropolitano with Los Blancos trailing their LaLiga-leading neighbours by five points, Atletico also having the benefit of a game in hand.

Having returned to training this week following an ankle injury that has kept him out since February 14, Benzema is back in the frame for a game that could go a long way to deciding the destination of the title.

"Karim is going to be with us," Zidane told a media conference. "We know what Karim is. Not just the matter of goals.

"He is an important player for us in our system and especially when we have the ball.

"He is special. What he does on the field... For people who like football, Benzema is a joy for football; for me, having him as a coach is a joy.

"He has been here for 10 years and has improved a lot. He is a fundamental player for us, for our team. He is a special player for all football fans, not just Madrid."

While Zidane will have Benzema at his disposal, he will be without Eden Hazard, the Belgium playmaker having not featured since January because of a muscle issue.

But Zidane denied reports Hazard had suffered a setback in his recovery.

"There is no relapse. We want him to be 100 per cent when he can return," added Zidane. "This is what he is doing, little by little, without haste.

"We know how important he is in our team, but we have to go with how he feels. It is important that, when he returns, he feels strong and 100 per cent.

"We are not going to risk anything on his return. He is progressing very well, and I hope that next week maybe he can be with us for good."

Benzema could make a crucial difference for Madrid, though.

In the 21 league games in which he has featured this season, Madrid have won 15, drawn three and lost three. In the four games in which he has been absent, Madrid have won one, drawn two and lost one, averaging a point less across those matches.

They have averaged almost a goal per game more (1.9 to 1.0) with Benzema in the line-up compared to when he has not been available, the Frenchman having found the net 12 times in LaLiga this term.

However, even if Madrid are defeated by Atletico, Zidane will not see it as a death knell for their hopes of retaining the title.

"We play another game, three points at stake," said Zidane. "It is a final, but like all games. When we play we always have to win.

"Whatever happens, we will stay alive in La Liga. We are focused on playing a good game and nothing else. If we play well, that is the most important thing for us."

Diego Simeone sees no reason to think the LaLiga title race could be over if Atletico Madrid beat Real Madrid on Sunday.

Atleti head into the derby at the Wanda Metropolitano with a five-point lead at the top of the table over their city rivals and Barcelona and a game in hand on both.

Simeone's men lost the reverse fixture 2-0 in December but then went on a run of nine consecutive league wins to put them in a commanding position at the top.

However, dropped points last month against Levante (twice) and Celta Vigo allowed Madrid and Barca to close the gap and a third home defeat in a row in all competitions would truly reignite a three-way title battle.

The omens are not good for Atletico, either, as they are on a nine-game winless run against Madrid in LaLiga, have failed to score in the last 355 minutes of that sequence and have yet to beat Los Blancos in the top flight at the Wanda Metropolitano.

Madrid have also found form away from home of late, winning each of their last three league games on the road, one short of their best run set under Zinedine Zidane last July.

Simeone, who has won just 12.5 per cent of league matches against Zidane, does not believe ending their poor recent derby record will be enough to consider the title race is in their hands.

"It's a really beautiful championship and all the important teams are seeking the best positions in the table," he said on Saturday.

"It's a top-of-the-table game, a direct game between two teams fighting for similar positions, but they're three points. There's still a long way to go in LaLiga and we'll try to take the game where we want so we can cause some damage.

"A few games ago, we were talking about a league where Real Madrid and Barcelona had no chance, and look where they are now. We know how difficult this championship is."

Joao Felix has begun to find form of late, the €126million man having scored a superb second in Atletico's 2-0 win at Villarreal last time out.

Simeone has yet to decide whether to start the talented Portugal youngster alongside Luis Suarez or to go with the more hard-working Angel Correa.

"Joao and Angel have different characteristics," he said. "Angel gives us more dynamism in the team's collective work, with a lot more directness in his play, and Joao has a special talent that can produce something nobody else has and, from the point of view of the number of goals, Joao's are very good.

"The competition is very good, very healthy, very beautiful. The two will play: one will start, and another will have to wait, but certainly both will play."

The last derby was a rare off-day for Atletico Madrid – and for Luis Suarez.

On a run of seven wins in a row and two goals conceded, with no LaLiga defeats all season, Diego Simeone's men were second best in a 2-0 defeat last December. As for Suarez, his 73 minutes on the pitch yielded a single, wayward shot.

Still, that result turned out to be an aberration. Three months on, Atleti head into Sunday's game at the Wanda Metropolitano with a five-point lead over Real Madrid and Barca at the top of the table, and with a game in hand. Suarez, meanwhile, has scored 11 of his 16 LaLiga goals this term since that chastening day at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Suarez's form for Atleti has made a complete mockery of Barca's decision to cast him aside last year, the suggestion the striker was "too old" to be relied upon looking more foolish by the week as he spearheads their charge for a first league title since 2014.

Indeed, given his record against Madrid and the state of the league table, this weekend could be the moment Suarez tips the balance of the title race inexorably in Atletico's favour.

 

OLD HABITS

It wasn't simply being told to leave by Barca that left Suarez so incensed; it was being made to feel he was no longer good enough for "a great team".

"That's what I did not like," he told France Football. "If I hadn't done anything at a club like Barca for three or four seasons, I would have understood.

"But, every year at Barca, I scored more than 20 goals per season. I have always had good statistics, just behind Leo [Messi]."

So he is again. Suarez's 16 goals in 21 league games this term puts him second in the top-scorer standings, three behind Messi. Add in assists, and only his old team-mate (23) has had more direct goal involvements than Suarez (18) in LaLiga this season.

While Suarez is no longer as explosive as he was at Liverpool and in his earlier Barca years, he has lost little of his ruthlessness. Discounting the two penalties he has converted this term, Suarez has scored 14 times from an expected goals value of just 9.6. That differential of 4.4 is the biggest in the division, save for that of 'El Comandante', Levante's 33-year-old star striker Jose Luis Morales (5.0).

It follows that Suarez has a shot conversion rate (including blocked shots) of 23.9, the fourth-highest figure for any LaLiga player with at least 10 goals this season, the best being Roger Marti with 31.3.

The Uruguayan also boasts a big chance conversion rate of 63.2 per cent, having scored 12 out of 19 this term. No player to have scored from at least 10 big chances can match that success rate. That cutting edge in a team that has conceded just 16 league goals in 24 matches is a potent combination.

 

CAN SUAREZ STOP THE DERBY ROT?

Atleti followed December's derby defeat by winning 10 of their next 12 games, the only slip-ups being a Copa del Rey shock at Cornella and a 2-2 home draw with Celta Vigo on February 8 (in which Suarez scored twice).

However, including that result, they have won only twice in their past five league matches, a run that has emboldened Barca and Madrid's title hopes and left fans wondering whether 'Hay Liga' after all.

A dip in form before a derby is never positive, but Atleti in particular need no extra pessimism. They have not won any of the most recent nine league meetings with Madrid, their longest run without a victory under Diego Simeone, and they have not even scored in the previous three. Only once in their history have they gone four league derbies without a goal.

Madrid are also the only team to play a league match at the Wanda Metropolitano without ever losing (one win, two draws), with Simeone having won only 12.5 per cent of league games against opposite number Zinedine Zidane, his worst return against any coach from at least four meetings.

But Suarez has happy memories of facing Los Blancos. Although he's gone two games without scoring against them, his goal record overall reads nine scored in 12 league appearances versus Madrid, the most of any player since his first season in Spain in 2014-15.

What's more, he has an all-important side-kick back in form.

 

JOAO, THAT'S IMPRESSIVE

Joao Felix's sublime strike against Villarreal secured a valuable three points for Atleti last time out and ended his own month-long goal drought. He responded with a stony-faced 'shushing' celebration, to which a delighted Simeone responded: "I love it when players rebel."

Simeone will be desperate to see his €126m man in a similar mood come Sunday. Not only is he Atleti's most exciting individual talent, but he's also the man who has brought the best out of Suarez this season.

Joao Felix has created eight chances for Suarez in LaLiga in 2020-21, more than any other Atleti player. Of his four assists, three have been for the former Ajax man; only Marcos Llorente has provided as many for Atleti's number nine.

Perhaps Suarez has found a kindred spirit in Joao Felix: supremely talented, decisive, and "rebellious". What better double act to deploy in the Atleti's most important LaLiga derby in seven years?

Real Madrid forward Luka Jovic said anything is possible as he weighs up his future during his loan spell at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Jovic re-joined Eintracht on loan until the end of the season, having endured a difficult period at LaLiga champions Madrid.

The 23-year-old Serbia international only scored twice in 32 appearances under Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane in the Spanish capital, where he arrived from Eintracht for €60million in 2019.

Jovic has impressed in his second spell with Eintracht, scoring three goals in eight Bundesliga appearances this term.

Amid speculation Eintracht could sell star Andre Silva to help fund a permanent deal for Jovic, the loanee told Bild: "I will think about my future when the season is over.

"Right now, I only think about Eintracht and I work hard to play in the next matches as best as I can.

"Anything is simply possible, because you never know what will happen in professional football.

"Coming back [on loan] was the right decision because a lot of things fit for me here.

"But, most important is the success of the team. If the team is doing well then that's positive for me.

"Each win for the team is a step forward for me. Of course, I want to play my part and help the team."

 

Will Kalidou Koulibaly leave Serie A's Napoli?

Koulibaly is one of Europe's finest defenders and the 29-year-old has attracted interest from across Europe.

Bayern Munich are reportedly eyeing the Senegal international.

 

TOP STORY – BAYERN FRONTRUNNERS FOR NAPOLI STAR

Bayern Munich are leading the race to sign Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, according to Il Mattino.

Koulibaly has long been linked with a move away from Napoli, though the club's valuation has deterred suitors.

But Koulibaly's asking price has reportedly dropped to €45million (£39m), alerting Bayern, as well as Manchester United and Liverpool.

Bild, however, claims Bundesliga champions Bayern have not made an offer for the Napoli star.

 

ROUND-UP

- Bild reports Manchester City are favourites to sign Erling Haaland if Borussia Dortmund sanction an off-season exit. Haaland has been linked with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Liverpool, ChelseaUnited and Bayern.

- As City target Haaland, Sport Mediaset says Serie A champions Juve are considering a move for veteran forward Sergio Aguero. The Argentina international is out of contract at season's end.

Barca have been offered Bayer Leverkusen star Edmond Tapsoba, claims Sport. Tapsoba is valued at around €40m.

- Wolves are open to selling Adama Traore at a reduced price, according to the Daily Mail. Barca, Liverpool and City have been linked with Traore previously.

- The Sun reports United are considering the sale of star goalkeeper David de Gea. It comes as Dean Henderson expects to become number one next season. The Transfer Window podcast, meanwhile, says United are seeking a new number one amid links to Milan star Gianluigi Donnarumma.

Chelsea remain interested in RB Leipzig centre-back Ibrahima Konate, according to Bild. Konate is not short of admirers, linked to the likes of United and Arsenal.

United have not contacted Eintracht Frankfurt's Andre Silva as an alternative to Haaland, claims Bild.

Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman said the club must be realistic about their title chances in LaLiga.

Koeman's Barca are second and five points adrift of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid, who have a match in hand, through 25 rounds ahead of Saturday's trip to Osasuna.

Barca – into next month's Copa del Rey final as they look to overturn a 4-1 deficit against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 – have struggled to convince this season.

While Koeman played down talk of the title, the Dutchman knows Barca have a chance to end the season on a high in the Copa final against Athletic Bilbao on April 17.

"As the coach and the players we have to be more realistic," Koeman told reporters. "We cannot change our minds and opinions about the team's chances to win something all the time.

"We know we have the [Copa del Rey] final and have a chance to win a big trophy in Spain. And depending on the results of the team we can fight for the title.

"We're several points behind Atletico Madrid and we can't lose any more points because then our objective will change and that's difficult.

"Hopefully at the end of the season we can say that, despite some problems, we have done well and that we have won a title. And that would be great."

Barcelona are undefeated in their last 15 games in LaLiga (W12 D3) – the second best current run of any team in the top five European leagues, only behind Premier League leaders Manchester City (19).

Lionel Messi has scored 19 goals in 23 LaLiga appearances this season and the six-time Ballon d'Or winner could reach 20 goals in a 13th consecutive campaign in the competition – a record.

Barca captain Messi has scored 23 goals in 19 LaLiga appearances against Osasuna, netting three braces in his last five games against them at El Sadar in the league.

Real Madrid star Toni Kroos said he is planning to retire at the LaLiga champions.

Kroos has enjoyed great success since joining Madrid from Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich in 2014, winning three Champions League trophies and two LaLiga titles among 13 honours.

The 31-year-old midfielder has made 309 appearances for Madrid across all competitions – the most by a German player at the Santiago Bernabeu, surpassing Uli Stielike.

Reflecting on the feat, Kroos – who has scored 21 goals since moving to the Spanish capital – told Real Madrid TV: "It's something special. When you look at the Germans who have played here you realise that they are big names: [Gunter] Netzer, [Bernd] Schuster or Stielike.
 
"Overtaking Stielike, who is a club legend, makes me really happy. It's a special record and I'm delighted to get to this point.

"As I've always said, my idea is to retire here and that's what I'm going to try to do."

Kroos has scored two goals and supplied six assists in 22 LaLiga appearances this season, while he has made 31 appearances across all competitions.

Madrid are third in LaLiga, five points adrift of neighbours and leaders Atletico Madrid ahead of Sunday's derby.

Zinedine Zidane's Madrid have not lost any of their three games at the Wanda Metropolitano in LaLiga (W1 D2), and remain the only team to have played in the new Atletico venue without losing in the league.

Zidane is unbeaten in his three away LaLiga fixtures against Atletico as a head coach (W1 D2) and could become the second Madrid boss to avoid defeat in his first four away derbies versus Rojiblancos in the history of the competition, after Luis Molowny in 1986 (W3 D1).

"I try to give my best in every game and every pass I make that doesn't reach my team-mate annoys me," Kroos added.

"I try to strive for perfection in this sense, although you can never be perfect.

"I practice it and I've been working on it continuously for many years."

Lionel Messi's inspirational form through February has seen the Barcelona captain collect his first Player of the Month award of the season.

February was Messi's most fruitful month of the 2020-21 campaign to date as he scored seven goals, two more than he managed in January.

No player scored more than him, while Real Sociedad's Alexander Isak was the only other individual to net more than four times in the month.

Messi's goalscoring habits helped Barca win four of their five games in the qualifying period, all of which saw him score at least once.

As such, Barca have improved their chances of potentially sparking a genuine title scrap in the final months of the season, with the Blaugrana only five points adrift of the leaders Atletico Madrid.

 

While Diego Simeone's men do still have a game in hand, Los Colchoneros also have the tricky test of a derby clash with Real Madrid to look forward to this weekend.

Messi's commitment to the cause was questioned earlier in the campaign after he rocked the club in pre-season with his transfer request.

He had only scored four times heading into December, when he added a further three – he already has 12 in 2021 and sits atop the 'Pichichi' standings with 19, three clear of nearest rival and friend Luis Suarez.

Messi is only the second Barcelona player to win the award this term, with Ansu Fati – who has missed much of 2020-21 through injury – claiming it for September.

Ronald Koeman's captain saw off competition from Isak, Yassine Bounou, Thibaut Courtois, Alex Berenguer, Nabil Fekir and Jose Luis Morales to win the prize.

Ronald Koeman has grown tired of questions over his future at Barcelona and is now eager for the arrival of a new club president to end the uncertainty.

After a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, elections to determine Josep Maria Bartomeu's successor will be held on Sunday.

Joan Laporta, Toni Freixa and Victor Font are the remaining candidates, with the decision over who will be in charge of the first team likely to sway the minds of many voting members.

Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta and Al-Sadd coach Xavi have been tipped to return to Camp Nou to replace Koeman should the next president decide a change in leadership is required.

However, Koeman's own position has been strengthened by some recent results, specifically the Copa del Rey triumph over Sevilla this week, with Barca recovering from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to win the tie 3-2 after extra time.

Koeman accepts the decision is largely beyond his control, but he has been wearied by the constant questions put to him about his chances of staying in the role.

Speaking ahead of Barca's LaLiga trip to Osasuna on Saturday, he said: "It's not in my hands. I have another year of my contract. Luckily, there'll be a new president in two or three days and we'll talk.

"I'm focused on winning games and on the possibility of winning the Copa del Rey. The rest is not in my hands.

"Of course, having a president is really important. It's the biggest club in the world and it's essential to know the possibilities that will open up to improve a lot of things. That's it."

When asked about the public discussion around possible replacement coaches, Koeman said: "This happens when a new president is coming. It doesn't bother me. I'm focused on my job. There are so many games that I can't think about other things.

"I'm not interested or bothered by names like Xavi or others. A new president is coming in and he'll decide. I'm tired of answering this kind of question.

"We're doing well, but we have to look for consistency. We have to concentrate on what we're doing. We're still lacking a lot.

"We've improved in terms of individual errors, we press more and there are phases of the game where we have improved with having three at the back. There are various things beyond the system."

Three wins in a row for Barca without conceding a goal has come at a key time in their season. As well as reaching another Copa final, their 10th in the past 13 seasons, they have closed to within five points of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid, having played a game more.

With Atleti facing Real Madrid on Sunday, Koeman is likely to be supporting Zinedine Zidane's side for a day to give Barca's title chances a further boost.

"The main thing is our game. We have to win, and then the best result is that the team in first loses," he said.

Gianluigi Donnarumma is attracting interest from across Europe.

Donnarumma's Milan contract expires at season's end and the star goalkeeper is yet to commit.

Premier League giants Chelsea are reportedly ready to prise the Italy international to London.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA LAUNCH DONNARUMMA BID

Chelsea are ready to make a move for Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, according to Libero Quotidiano.

Donnarumma's contract expires at the end of the season and Premier League giants Chelsea are set to submit an offer worth £9million (€10.5m) per season, despite already boasting the world's most expensive goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and Edouard Mendy.

The Italy international has also been linked with the likes of Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.

 

ROUND-UP

- Sky reports teenage sensation Jamal Musiala has signed a long-term contract extension with Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich. The new deal is reportedly worth €5m per year and will tie him to Bayern until 2026.

Manchester City have joined the race for Atalanta star Robin Gosens, according to Virgilio. Gosens has had interest from Serie A rivals Inter and Juventus but Atalanta are understood to want €40m (£34m) for his services.

- The Daily Mail says Leicester City are planning for Jamie Vardy's long-term replacement by targeting a £15m move for Celtic forward Odsonne Edouard.

- Santiago Arias is being circled by EvertonRoma and PSG this off-season, according to Kicker. Arias is currently on loan at Bayer Leverkusen from Atletico Madrid.

- InterLive claims Inter are keen on Juve goalkeeper Mattia Perin, who is currently on loan at Genoa, and may use Matias Vecino in exchange. The Nerazzurri are looking for goalkeeper cover for Samir Handanovic.

Marcelino lauded Athletic Bilbao, who will contest two Copa del Rey finals within a fortnight after overcoming Levante on Thursday.

Athletic saw off Levante 2-1 in extra time and 3-2 on aggregate to set up a showdown with LaLiga giants Barcelona in the Copa del Rey decider next month.

Supercopa de Espana champions after upstaging Barca in January, Athletic reached last season's Copa final but, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, they are yet to play it – the match against their rivals Real Sociedad set for April 3.

Athletic are now gearing up for two finals in the space of 14 days next month, with a clash against Barca scheduled for April 17.

"These players have made Athletic Club history and sometimes that only happens once in a lifetime," Athletic head coach Marcelino said.

"They had to make the most of the moment and they did so."

Alex Berenguer's deflected, extra-time winner sealed Athletic's progress to back-to-back finals and saw them equal Real Madrid on 39 appearances in Copa del Rey deciders.

It completed a turnaround for the 23-time Copa winners, with Raul Garcia's penalty having cancelled out Roger Marti's opener.

"We are going to take it step by step and enjoy today at least," Raul Garcia added.

"I am very happy because of all the work behind this and hopefully it will be a historic year.

"It's an honour to fight alongside this group of friends.

"We have a lot of confidence in each other, always help each other and that's what is giving us the results."

Athletic and Barca will play their ninth Copa final – the most-contested fixture in the competition's history.

In fact, Athletic will become in the first team to play two Copa del Rey deciders in the same month.

Jadon Sancho can be compared to Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi with his performances for Borussia Dortmund, according to former Germany international goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.

After a slow start to the campaign amid talk of a move to Manchester United falling through, Sancho's form has picked up of late and he is on course to hit double figures for goals and assists for the third Bundesliga season running.

The England international last week registered his 50th assist in the German top flight, becoming the youngest ever player to do so in what was his 99th appearance in the competition.

Sancho has now been directly involved in 12 Bundesliga goals in 2021 - six goals and six assists - which is behind only Bayern Munich striker Lewandowski (11 goals and two assists).

In Europe's top five leagues, Barcelona forward Messi (15) is the only other player to have been directly involved in more goals this calendar year than Sancho, who is level with Atalanta's Luis Muriel.

Lehmann has been impressed by the 20-year-old's form and has backed the youngster, as well as compatriot and BVB team-mate Jude Bellingham, to remain in the Bundesliga, despite ongoing talk of a possible move to the Premier League.

"He's done very well," Lehmann told the Daily Star. "Right now his stats can be compared to Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski, and I think the third best in the whole of Europe. It's fantastic for English football."

Asked about the future of Sancho and Bellingham, Lehmann said: "Right now, I think they're staying. Most of the big clubs have full squads anyway.

"You'd have to be really, really outstanding if a bigger club tries to get you. But if you can imagine a club like Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City, there is already 30 or 35 players plus the players on loan.

"It's not that easy to make a decision for guys like Bellingham and Sancho at this early stage in their careers. Would they add something? We're not sure, but first of all they need to decrease their own squad size."

Sancho, who scored the winning goal for Dortmund in their DFB-Pokal win at Borussia Monchengladbach on Tuesday, is a major doubt for this weekend's Der Klassiker showdown with Bayern due to a leg injury.

Karim Benzema has revealed how Cristiano Ronaldo's departure has allowed him to take on a different role in Real Madrid's attack.

The Frenchman has scored a goal every 1.7 games across all competitions in the two-and-a-half seasons since Ronaldo made a €100million switch to Juventus.

But in their nine campaigns together at the Santiago Bernabeu, Benzema was instead finding the back of the net once every 2.2 games.

And the 33-year-old has now acknowledged that he had to sacrifice certain parts of his game for Ronaldo's benefit - not that he has any regrets over the matter.

"Cristiano's departure allowed me to play a different role. He scored 50 goals every year and you had to adapt to his game," he told El Pais.

"He is one of the best in the world and I was happy by his side."

Nine of the 18 trophies Benzema has won in his 12 years in Madrid have come during the two separate managerial stints of Zinedine Zidane.

Of his compatriot, he added: "He is an older brother for me, he is always there to advise me."

In a wide-ranging interview, Benzema also opened up on his boyhood sporting heroes, explaining: "In football, it's Ronaldo, the Brazilian. 

"I admire [Mike] Tyson because we both came from the bottom and we went up little by little. We never had it easy, nor did they give us anything."

He also discussed his upbringing, adding: "I come from a neighbourhood where things were difficult. When I saw older boys well-dressed and with nice cars, what I wanted was to be like them.

"Money makes things a lot easier, but you don't need millions to be happy."

Real Madrid will likely be without Mariano Diaz for the derby with Atletico Madrid after the striker sustained a pelvic injury.

The 27-year-old was taken off after 61 minutes of Monday's 1-1 draw with Real Sociedad at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Madrid announced on their official website on Thursday: "Following the tests carried out today on our player, Mariano Diaz, by the Real Madrid medical department, he has been diagnosed with a muscle injury to his left external obturator. His recovery will be monitored."

Mariano is expected to miss Sunday's clash with the LaLiga leaders, leaving Zinedine Zidane's side facing a striker shortage.

Karim Benzema is battling to be fit after missing three games with adductor problems, with 21-year-old Hugo Duro called upon for the final half-hour against Sociedad for just his second LaLiga appearance in Madrid colours.

The champions head into the contest with Diego Simeone's side trailing them by five points in the table, having played a game more.

However, they are unbeaten in the past nine league derby matches and are the only side from Spain's top flight to have played at the Wanda Metropolitano and avoided defeat.

Barcelona are set to be without Gerard Pique once again after the club confirmed he suffered a knee ligament injury shortly after his Copa del Rey heroics against Sevilla. 

Pique's stoppage-time header after the 90-minute mark in Wednesday's semi-final second leg saw Barca wipe out Sevilla's 2-0 lead from the first meeting last month, with Ousmane Dembele having struck early on. 

Barca went on to win 3-0 after extra time, Martin Braithwaite getting the decisive goal five minutes after the restart to leave Sevilla – who had Fernando set off just before Pique's header – on the receiving end of a commendable comeback. 

But it seemingly came at a cost, with Pique appearing to hurt his knee in extra time when he was forced into an awkward turn while passing back to Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who had earlier saved a penalty from Lucas Ocampos when the score was 1-0.

Pique went down holding his knee only to eventually see out the game, suggesting the issue was not a particularly serious one. 

But Barca confirmed on Thursday that further examinations have revealed a sprain to the internal lateral ligament in his right knee. 

While the club said the length of his absence will be dependent on his recovery, such sprains can mean a six-week absence. 

That could potentially rule him out of El Clasico on April 10, while it seems a strong possibility Pique will miss the second leg of Barca's Champions League last-16 tie away to Paris Saint-Germain next week. 

PSG hold a 4-1 advantage from the first leg at Camp Nou on February 16, the match in which Pique returned from a previous knee injury sustained in November.

 

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