Barca hobbling

MADRID - The fans of world champions Barcelona are very worried about Sunday.

MADRID - The fans of world champions Barcelona are very worried about Sunday.

That's when Lionel Messi and company are away to unpredictable Atletico Madrid, who have beaten them on their past two visits to the Estadio Calderon.

Barca's excellent defence has been decimated by injuries and suspensions, obliging coach Josep Guardiola to improvise with an emergency back four.

Eric Abidal, Daniel Alves and Dmytro Chygrynskiy are all injured, while Rafa Marquez and Gerard Pique are suspended.

Captain Carles Puyol will have to play despite his muscle problems, alongside Gabriel Milito who has just returned after almost two years out injured.

Yesterday's edition of Catalan daily Mundo Deportivo calls it "an emergency situation" and hints that Guardiola might put young winger Jeffren at right-back.

In addition, playmaker Andres Iniesta is doubtful with muscle problems, while Yaya Toure is out for two more weeks.

The Madrid media are hopeful Barca can drop points at the Calderon, which would allow Real Madrid to reduce Barca's five-point lead at the top.

An online poll in Marca showed yesterday that 55percent of readers believe - or maybe just hope - that Barca's performance against Atletico will be affected by their many absences. Barca have 55 points from 21 games, Real have 50.

Real should have few problems tomorrow away to bottom team Xerez, with Cristiano Ronaldo returning from suspension.

Also tomorrow, third-placed Valencia, who are eight points behind Real, are away to Sporting Gijon, and troubled Villarreal host young Athletic Bilbao.

On Sunday, fourth-placed Mallorca are away to lowly Tenerife, while Sevilla are at home to in-form Osasuna. Sunday's other games are as follows: Espanyol vs Deportivo Coruna, Valladolid vs Zaragoza, Getafe vs Almeria and Racing Santander vs Malaga. - Sapa-DPA