Sports

Barca and Atletico Madrid turn attention to La Liga race for top four

MADRID, Spain, Jan 21 Barcelona and Atletico Madrid will have to put recent struggles behind them this weekend as they continue their scrap to finish in La Liga’s top four.

Barca’s hopes of winning a trophy this season were dealt two blows in a week after they followed up defeat by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup with a surprise loss to Athletic Bilbao on Thursday in the Copa del Rey.

Xavi Hernandez’s side still have the Europa League, with a tie against Napoli to come next month, but La Liga is surely out of reach given they sit 17 points behind Real Madrid at the top.

“We have lost two titles in a week but we still have the league and Europa League,” said Xavi on Thursday.

“We have no other option but to keep going.”

Barcelona have shown signs of progress in recent weeks under Xavi.

However, talented teenager Ansu Fati could be out injured again after he pulled up against Athletic with a thigh problem while the ugly situation surrounding Ousmane Dembele threatens to become a distraction.

Dembele was not included in the squad that travelled to Bilbao after being told by director of football Mateu Alemany that he should leave before the end of January, having failed to agree an extension to his contract, which expires in the summer.

“Dembele is important but it’s a club decision and we all agree, I don’t think his absence has affected the team,” Xavi said.

If Dembele is out of the picture, Xavi will hope Ferran Torres’ goal on Thursday –- his first for the club –- can be a sign of things to come.

Barcelona play away at Alaves on Sunday and cannot afford to let up in the league, with fourth-placed Atletico Madrid a point in front, level with Real Sociedad, who knocked Atletico out of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday.

Diego Simeone’s side have won only two of their last eight matches in all competitions and managed to keep a clean sheet in just two of their last 12. The defending champions are at home to Valencia on Saturday.

“The only way to improve is to help the players and give them confidence and peace of mind during what is a difficult period,” said Simeone on Wednesday.

“Football is about being aggressive in both areas and the more aggressive you are, the closer you will be to winning.

“Hopefully we will find again those clean sheets that were criticised for so many years but now have more and more weight.

“If we are stable, everything will be easier.”

Real Madrid play Elche on Sunday, the same opponent they needed extra-time to beat 2-1 in the Copa del Rey on Thursday, while Sevilla host Celta Vigo on Saturday.

Sevilla missed the chance to cut the gap to Real Madrid to two points after they were held to a 1-1 draw by Valencia in midweek, meaning Madrid’s advantage is four.

Real Betis, in third, travel to Espanyol in 11th on Friday night.

Fixtures 

Friday

Espanyol v Real Betis (11pm)

Saturday

Levante v Cadiz (4pm), Villarreal v Mallorca (6:15pm), Sevilla v Celta Vigo (8:30pm), Atletico Madrid v Valencia (11pm)

Sunday

Granada v Osasuna (4pm), Real Madrid v Elche (6:15pm), Real Sociedad v Getafe (8:30pm), Rayo Vallecano v Athletic Bilbao (8:30pm), Alaves v Barcelona (11pm)

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