Messi and Coutinho create Barcelona dilemma for Valverde

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho in a match. (AFP pic)

Barcelona will hope to reassert their authority in the title race on Saturday after a stuttering spell has given Real Madrid fresh hope in La Liga.

Here, AFP Sport looks at five talking points ahead of round 24.

Coutinho form a concern

When Ousmane Dembele injured his ankle in January, the door was open for Philippe Coutinho to make his mark at Barca.

Instead, he has delivered a series of jaded performances that have left some even questioning his long-term future.

With Dembele now fit again, it remains to be seen whether the Brazilian starts on Saturday against Real Valladolid.

Ernesto Valverde has said he appreciates that Coutinho is a player that takes risks but there has been a lack of confidence and clarity in his play that suggests he is still not sure what his job is.

Messi fitness in spotlight

Lionel Messi came off the bench against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey and then started in the draw at home to Athletic Bilbao but in neither game was he fully fit.

A clear week may have given Messi time to shake off his niggling thigh strain but Valverde has another decision to make this weekend, particularly with the first leg against Lyon in the Champions League to come on Tuesday.

Valverde was blamed for burning out key players last season, to the detriment of their chances in Europe.

But three draws in a row, and Real’s resurgence means he cannot let the momentum drain further.

Vinicius leads firing Madrid attack

“He showed how good he can be,” said Ajax coach Erik Ten Hag, after Vinicius Junior had just terrorised his defence in Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid.

Vinicius’ performances have tended to follow a similar pattern, with his tender age often showing itself in erratic decision-making and over-eagerness.

But scattered in between are the electric moments that have made the striker one of the first names on the teamsheet in recent weeks.

At some point, Santiago Solari may feel the 18-year-old needs a break in this, his debut season.

Even so, his form seems too good to interrupt, even if there is plenty of depth now that Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio are back from injury, not to mention Lucas Vazquez, who has been a staple under Solari. Madrid has options, just when they need them.

Simeone with challenges to face

Atletico Madrid announced on Thursday that Diego Simeone had extended his contract as coach until 2022 and few could argue the Argentinian committing his future is not excellent news for the club.

But two La Liga defeats on the bounce, to Real Betis and Real Madrid, have placed doubts over the seriousness of their title challenge.

Diego Costa could be back from injury for the trip to Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, which would help, but Atleti has scored almost half as many goals as Barcelona in the league, a deficit difficult to cover no matter how tight the defence.

Race for top four heats up

Sevilla was top of the table in November but now find themselves leading an increasingly scrunched group of challengers for the last Champions League qualification spot.

Two points behind Sevilla are Getafe, who have the second-best defence in the division, and they are only ahead of Alaves on goal difference.

Betis will feel they are in the race, sitting only five points off fourth in seventh, and so too will Valencia, one point beneath them.

None of the chasing pack has been consistent since the turn of the year and it might come down to those that have the fewest distractions.

Sevilla and Betis are both involved in the Europa League, with Betis also in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, their opponents Valencia.