Real Madrid continue La Liga title pursuit

Having steadied the ship following two consecutive draws with commanding wins in La Liga and in Europe, Real Madrid begin a crucial run of games with a tricky trip to Pamplona to face Osasuna on Saturday.

After Barcelona beat Sevilla a fortnight ago, Barca coach Pep Guardiola declared that there was no way his side could beat Madrid to the league title.

But then two late free-kicks from Santi Cazorla and Marcos Senna, for Malaga and Villarreal respectively, saw their sides draw against an increasingly nervy Real.

A sense of trepidation at the Bernabeu was eased by a 5-1 thrashing of Real Sociedad and then, in mid-week, Karim Benzema hit his second brace in a matter of days as José Mourinho’s side took a big step towards qualifying for the Champions League semifinals with a 3-0 away victory over APOEL in Cyprus.

The gap at the top is six points but Real have some big games ahead of them, with the visit to sixth-placed Osasuna coming before a home clash with Valencia, the Madrid derby with Atletico and the Clasico away to Barcelona.

Pamplona is traditionally a tough place to visit, and Osasuna inflicted a damaging 1-0 defeat on Madrid there last season.

Jose Luis Mendilibar’s side have also been one of the surprise packages of this campaign and have lost just once in their last nine games, a run which included a 3-2 home win against Barcelona.

“The pressure is on them although they are used to playing with it. They need to win and we will do all that we can do to play well and ensure that the points stay at home,” said Osasuna captain Patxi Punal.

“It is always a big motivation to play against a big side and we are up against the leaders in Real Madrid … If we do get a good result then that will be an important boost for us to finish higher up the table.”

Meanwhile, Barcelona come into their home clash against Athletic Bilbao in fine form, with Lionel Messi leading the way with 12 goals from his last six games.

They have won their previous seven games in the league although they were held to a 0-0 draw away to AC Milan in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Athletic have had an excellent season under Marcelo Bielsa but their league form has suffered recently due to the demands of an impressive run in the Europa League which includes the defeat of Manchester United.

They are going to be further hampered as the match at the Camp Nou comes only 48 hours after their Europa League quarter-final first-leg clash with Schalke 04 in Germany.

Only a few weeks ago Valencia looked fairly secure in third place but the race for the final automatic Champions League qualifying spot has really opened up in the wake of back-to-back defeats for Unai Emery’s side and they are now level on 47 points with Malaga.

Valencia, who are another of Spain’s representatives in the quarterfinals of the Europa League, face a tough local derby against Levante on Sunday while Malaga are at home to Real Betis.

Espanyol will hope to become the first team to beat Villarreal since Miguel Angel Lotina — a former Espanyol coach — took charge of the Yellow Submarine, while there is a Madrid derby between Atletico and Getafe and Sevilla entertain Mallorca.

At the foot of the table Zaragoza take on Sporting Gijon looking for a third win on the bounce and Racing Santander play Granada, while elsewhere Real Sociedad are in action against Rayo Vallecano. — AFP

Racing Santander v Granada (1600 GMT), Sporting Gijon v Zaragoza (1600 GMT), Osasuna v Real Madrid (1800 GMT), Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao (2000 GMT), Malaga v Real Betis (2000 GMT)
Atletico Madrid v Getafe (1000 GMT), Valencia v Levante (1600 GMT), Real Sociedad v Rayo Vallecano (1930 GMT), Villarreal v Espanyol (1930 GMT)
Sevilla v Mallorca (1900 GMT)

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