MADRID, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Amid growing political tension in Catalonia over a banned independence referendum, table-topping Barcelona visit fellow Catalans Girona on Saturday in a derby that will be played against a backdrop of regional unrest.
A crisis over Catalonia’s latest push for independence came to a head this week as Spanish police raided Catalan government offices and arrested officials to halt the referendum on Oct. 1, sparking mass protests in Barcelona and several other Catalan cities.
Situated 100km from Barcelona, the city of Girona is fiercely pro-independence and a spiky atmosphere with a strong anti-Spain sentiment is expected at the promoted side’s Montilivi stadium.
The political upheaval, however, has not prevented Barcelona from enjoying a storming start to the season.
The football club have always stressed their Catalan identity and said this week that they remained faithful to their “historic commitment to... self-determination”.
Away from the off-field unrest, however, Barca are setting the pace in La Liga after a blistering start to the season.
They swatted Eibar aside 6-1 in midweek to maintain their 100 percent record after five games and already lead Real Madrid by seven points after their rivals’ stuttering start to the campaign.
Ominously for Saturday’s opponents, Lionel Messi appears to be enjoying life as much as ever under new coach Ernesto Valverde.
The Argentine’s four goals on Wednesday mean he has already hit nine in five La Liga games this season, and Valverde added his voice to Messi’s many admirers.
“He’s one of the most intelligent players I’ve ever seen,” he said of Messi. “It doesn’t matter where he plays, he’ll turn nothing into something. That’s brilliant for us and awful for the opponent.
“We’ve been able to rest some players and give minutes to others who needed to play, it’s working well for us. I’m not worried that the side is peaking too soon – I’d be worried if we were playing badly.”
That is a worry Real Madrid could be forgiven for shouldering, although coach Zinedine Zidane says otherwise.
Real have endured a dismal start to their campaign. Without a win in three league games at home this season, they will be grateful for an away trip to managerless Alaves, who have yet to win a point.
Real will know that even at this early stage of the season they cannot afford another slip up, even if Zidane says there is no need to panic just yet.
“It’s not that we’re playing badly. We’re having difficulty scoring despite creating chances. When we’re away we seem to be able to do this much better,” he said following a 1-0 home defeat to Real Betis on Wednesday.
That result lifted Betis up to sixth place, one spot above champions Real.
“There’s lots of games to go, we need to keep our composure. The league is long and we’ve only just started. I don’t think there’s any need for panic,” Zidane added.
Elsewhere on Saturday, second and third meet as Sevilla travel to Atletico Madrid, while fourth plays fifth as Real Sociedad host Valencia on Sunday. (Editing by Toby Davis)