Sampaoli's last chance saloon at Barcelona

By Rik Sharma

By Rik Sharma

MADRID, Reuters) - Jorge Sampaoli takes his stuttering Sevilla to Camp Nou on Wednesday in his last chance to prove to Barcelona he has the quality to coach them next season.

The Catalans are looking to keep the pressure on Real Madrid at the top of La Liga ahead of Los Blancos’ game at Leganes afterwards, but the clash with Sevilla isn’t as tough as it first appeared.

For much of the season Sampaoli’s side were in the title race but their season collapsed in March, with Leicester City eliminating them from the Champions League and their Liga form suffering too.

Since beating Athletic Bilbao 1-0 on March 2, Sevilla have drawn three games against Alaves, Leganes and Sporting Gijon, as well as falling at Atletico Madrid.

They are now fourth in the table and 10 points behind leaders Madrid, who have played a game more.

Sampaoli's chances of replacing Luis Enrique, who will leave when his Barcelona contract expires in June, have dwindled, with Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde and current assistant coach Juan Carlos Unzue now the favourites.

Only a high quality display could help his case, but critics say that Sampaoli’s high-pressing style has taken a toll and his squad is now drained, though the coach disagreed. "I do not see a lack of freshness, but we could not hit the target once we were in the opposition's half," Sampaoli said after the 0-0 draw with Sporting.

“We must improve in regard to converting our chances. Do we have less energy now than earlier in the season? I do not agree with that analysis.” With Sevilla in poor form, Barcelona will expect to earn the three points, particularly with key players rested.

Lionel Messi was suspended for the 4-1 win at Granada on Sunday and Gerard Pique was rested after playing twice for Spain. Andres Iniesta was only a substitute and Samuel Umtiti did not feature. But all four players are expected to start against Sevilla.

Luis Enrique was pleased to be able to rest his stars and still take three points from Nuevo Los Carmenes. “It's great when you can make up for absent players with the type of squad we have, because it is with squads that win you trophies.”

Rafinha injured his knee against Granada and will be missing, along with Arda Turan and long-term absentee Aleix Vidal.

Real Madrid, meanwhile, head to local rivals Leganes, although they will be without Raphael Varane, who injured his hamstring in the 3-0 win over Alaves on Sunday.

Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane hopes they can pick up the pace after a good result though disappointing display at the Bernabeu.

“We know we have to improve. With games every three days, you can't always play well for 90 minutes. We have to consider that this is the way it's going to be almost every three days and it'll only get worse.”

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)