Neymar to lead Barcelona in Spanish league title race

MADRID (AP) Lionel Messi is reeling after getting a four-match suspension from international play. Luis Suarez is lamenting a pair of losses with Uruguay. And Neymar is full of confidence after helping Brazil become the first team to qualify for the World Cup.

With the Spanish league returning this weekend, it will likely be the Brazilian leading the way for Barcelona in its pursuit of Real Madrid.

''You are happy when things are going your way, when you are playing well,'' the 25-year-old Neymar said. ''Everything is falling into place and that makes us happy.''

Messi was handed the four-match suspension after insulting a linesman. Without him, Argentina lost to Bolivia and is now in danger of not making it to the World Cup. Uruguay is still in position to qualify, but two losses to Brazil and Peru didn't help.

Neymar, however, is thriving both at home and with Barcelona. The striker has scored six goals in his last six matches, four played with Barcelona and two with Brazil.

Barcelona, seeking its third consecutive title, is two points behind Real Madrid after 28 matches. Madrid, which hasn't won the league since 2012, still has a game in hand.

Messi will not play this weekend because of a yellow-card suspension, but Neymar is set to start on Sunday when Barcelona plays at Granada, an opponent it has beaten 10 times in the 11 matches. Granada's only win over Barcelona was in a league match three years ago.

If Neymar manages to score, it will be his 100th goal with Barcelona since joining the club in 2013.

The Brazilian's good run started with his superb performance in Barcelona's historic 6-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. Neymar scored two goals and set up the injury-time clincher by Sergi Roberto, which allowed the Catalan club to overturn a 4-0 first-leg loss and reach the quarterfinals.

His two goals with Brazil in South American qualifying were impressive - a lob shot over the goalkeeper in the 4-1 win against Uruguay in Montevideo and a close-range shot that followed a remarkable run of nearly 70 meters (yards) that started near Brazil's own penalty area.

Neymar has already matched the 52 goals that Pele had with the national team by the same age. He is four goals shy of Romario's all-time tally of 56, which is the fourth-best for Brazil. Pele ended with 95 goals, ahead of Ronaldo (67) and Zico (66).

Madrid also plays Sunday, hosting surprising Alaves at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. The leaders have won eight of their last 10 matches, including the last three.

Alaves, which will play the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona in May, is 10th in the standings with only one loss in its last six matches.

Third-place Sevilla, six points off the lead, will try to end a three-game winless streak in the league when it hosts relegation-wary Sporting Gijon on Sunday. Fourth-place Atletico Madrid, two points behind Sevilla and coming off three straight victories, plays at Malaga on Saturday.

---

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.