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Messi nets double as Barca finish off Getafe Real target three-way tie at top

MADRID, Jan 17, (AFP): Lionel Messi scored twice, including one brilliant individual effort, in his first start of the year as Barcelona beat Getafe 2-0 in the second-leg of their Copa del Rey last 16 tie to progress 6-0 on aggregate. However, it was far from a perfect evening for the Catalans as Neymar had to be carried from the field after suffering a nasty looking right ankle sprain midway through the first-half. Barca boss Gerardo Martino, though, played down fears that the Brazilian could be sidelined for a significant period of time. “We don’t think it is as bad as it appeared on television. He could be out for a period of time, but it shouldn’t be too serious, the player is fine,” he said. “I prefer that the doctors say exactly how long he will be out, but we don’t think it will be for a long time.”

With his side already leading 4-0 from the first-leg, thanks in part to two goals from Messi on his first appearance as a substitute after two months out, Martino made nine changes to the side that started Saturday’s La Liga 0-0 draw at Atletico Madrid. Neymar was also making his first start of the year after recovering from a bout of gastroenteritis. However, his return lasted only 23 minutes as he had to be helped off the field by two members of the Barca medical staff as he turned his ankle in attempting to cross the ball from the left side of the area. Real Madrid can pile the pressure on La Liga leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid by moving into a three-way tie at the top of the table with a win away to struggling Real Betis on Saturday.

Madrid closed the gap on their title rivals to three points last weekend thanks to a hard-fought 1-0 win away at Espanyol, whilst Atletico and Barca played out a 0-0 draw at the Vicente Calderon. All three sides are still competing on three fronts as they progressed into the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey in midweek ahead of a return to Champions League action next month. Despite a run of good results, Madrid’s performances have failed to convince in recent weeks with 91 million euro ($124 million, £77 million) signing Gareth Bale looking particularly off-colour. However, coach Carlo Ancelotti has hailed his side’s competitive spirit to keep themselves in the title race. “Now the most difficult part of the season comes because all the matches are important,” he said. “We don’t always play fantastic football. We have a lot of games right now and to always play well isn’t easy. “But the team is concentrated, working very hard and is hungry to achieve things in the future.”

A win for Real would mean they would move joint top for the first time since mid-September and Los Blancos will be heavy favourites against a Betis side rooted to the foot of the table and without a win in the league 12 games. Barcelona are in action on Sunday as they travel to Levante where Lionel Messi is expected to start. Atletico are the last of the title contenders to take the field this weekend as they host an in-form Sevilla side who have moved into contention for the fourth Champions League place with a seven-game unbeaten run. And midfielder Tiago is confident that his side can stave off tiredness to continue fighting on three fronts until the end of the campaign. “We are going to try and we think that we can. We have a very good group of players and everyone will get their chance,” he told the club’s website. “We need everyone to be at their best because it is not easy to keep competing in two games a week. Until now we have responded well and hopefully we can continue to do so.”

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