Henry’s return boosts Barcelona’s league bid

Posted Thursday, March 18, 2010 by AP

BARCELONA, Spain (AP)—Thierry Henry’s timely return to form is helping Barcelona into the home stretch of its Spanish league duel with bitter rival Real Madrid.

Madrid and Barcelona share 65 points atop the league standings, with Madrid ahead only on goal difference after 26 games.

Although Lionel Messi’s goals have carried Barcelona recently, Henry started Wednesday’s 4-0 Champions League win over Stuttgart and was decisive in last weekend’s league victory over Valencia.

With Madrid determined to win its first league trophy since 2007 after being knocked out of the Champions League, Barcelona needs Messi’s supporting cast to step up, starting with Saturday’s match at Zaragoza.

“The most important thing is I feel good,” Henry said. “It’s not about relaunching my season. I’m 33, and I think I’ve already shown people enough that I know what I can do. The most important thing is to help my team, not to worry if I score 20 or six goals—that won’t change my career.”

Coach Pep Guardiola started Henry as the lone striker in place of struggling Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and not on the left flank which has been his home since his transfer from Arsenal over two seasons ago.

“I still expect more from (Henry), but I have to say I’m very happy with him,” Guardiola said. “This season we won’t accomplish anything without the best Henry or the best Ibra.”

Guardiola said that relegating Ibrahimovic to the substitutes bench was partly to shake the Swedish striker out of his funk.

“My goal is to get the best out of him,” Guardiola said. “Without him in the best shape we won’t win anything this season—he knows we need him.”

Madrid, meanwhile, plays Sporting Gijon on Sunday at the Santiago Bernabeu, where it has been unbeaten in league play this season.

While the top-two continue their fight, now distant challengers Valencia, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and several surprise teams are focusing on ending the season in the Champions League qualifying places.

Valencia is third with 47 points, Sevilla has 44, Mallorca 43 and Deportivo La Coruna 42.

Valencia lost 3-0 to Barcelona last weekend while Sevilla was eliminated from the Champions League following a 2-1 home defeat to CSKA Moscow.

Although Sevilla will play in the Copa del Rey final, under-fire Sevilla coach Manolo Jimenez needs a victory at Espanyol on Saturday as the Andalucian club looks to finish the season strongly after fans called for Jimenez’s firing at the close of Tuesday’s defeat.

“Important games are coming up and we have to be at our absolute best,” said goalkeeper Andres Palop, whose error gave the Russians the winning goal. “It’s been a tough moment but you have to pick yourself up.”

Espanyol is playing with its topflight fate in mind for a second straight season, as it lies five points above the relegation zone.

Valencia is without injured midfielder David Albelda for Sunday’s match against an improved Almeria.

Deportivo welcomes second-last Valladolid to El Riazor stadium on Saturday, while Atletico’s aspirations of getting into the top-four will likely need a victory at Mallorca on Sunday as it trails Sevilla by 10 points.

“I won’t lie—the Champions League looks difficult, but in football you never know,” said Atletico striker Sergio Aguero, who is suspended for the match at the Ono Estadi. “At the least we’ll be trying to qualify for the Europa League.”

In other weekend matches, it’s: Athletic Bilbao vs. Getafe; Osasuna vs. Racing Santander; Xerez vs. Tenerife; and Malaga vs. Villarreal.

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