Madrid faces Valencia with La Liga hopes on line

Three days after raising the Copa del Rey at Mestalla Stadium, Real Madrid returns to face Valencia in a crucial match to keep alive its hopes of catching Spanish leader Barcelona.

"This is a big boost for us now that the league is practically Barcelona’s," said Madrid defender Alvaro Arbeloa.

Barcelona commands an eight-point lead and can lick its wounds after losing the cup to its fierce rival at home against an Osasuna side just two points above the relegation zone.

With only six rounds to play, Madrid can hardly afford to drop any points if its wants to stop the Catalan side from collecting its third straight league crown.

The problem for coach Jose Mourinho’s team is that Valencia has everything to play for since a win will clinch it a spot in next year’s Champions League.

"We are three points from our goal of returning to the Champions League and we are going to fight very hard," Valencia midfielder Ever Banega said.

With his starters exhausted after Wednesday’s 120-minute cup final and yet another clash with Barcelona looming next week in the semifinals of the Champions League, Mourinho could field a starting 11 full of reserves.

"It does not matter the lineup Madrid has," said Banega. "We want to continue atop and Mourinho can come with whoever he wants because we really want to beat them."

Barcelona now turns to making sure it doesn’t slip up in the league where it hasn’t lost since round two and hasn’t dropped any points at Camp Nou stadium since October.

David Villa said Barcelona was stung by the loss, but that his team still had the league to wrap up and the shot to avenge the Copa defeat in the Champions League to play for.

"We have to pick ourselves up, digest (the loss) and fight because there is a month left that can turn out to be very nice," said Villa. "We are angry but we have to keep going, we have to decide the league and then think in the Champions League, where we have the chance to classify for the final."

Osasuna has lost 12 of its 16 outings this season, and the game offers an excellent opportunity for Barcelona to rediscover its attacking form. Lionel Messi has been providing his team’s scoring punch as both Villa and attack partner Pedro Rodriguez have gone 11 games without finding the back of the net.

"Now we have to take on a game with an important three points in play," Pedro said.

Also on Saturday, Real Sociedad visits fifth-place Athletic Bilbao in a Basque Country derby, while sixth-place Sevilla hosts fourth-place Villarreal on Sunday in a critical game for the Andalusians’ chances of playing in Europe next season.

After a strong first half of the season, the promoted Sociedad could be in danger off falling back in the second division if cannot earn points at San Mames stadium.

"We are very excited for this game, it is the one we most look forward to playing away from Anoeta," said Sociedad playmaker Xabi Prieto. "Whoever scores first will determine the winner because I believe it will be a low-scoring game."

Sevilla hasn’t won in two weeks and will try to take advantage of a Villarreal side that has flagged off in the league recently as it concentrates on its Europa League campaign that has led it to the semifinals.

But a loss by Gregorio Manzano’s team could see it slide out of European positions with Atletico Madrid even on points and Espanyol just one point behind.

On Monday, last-place Almeria plays fellow drop-zone side Zaragoza.

Also on Sunday, it’s: Mallorca vs. Getafe, Sporting Gijon vs. Espanyol, Hercules vs. Deportivo La Coruna, Racing Santander vs. Malaga, and Atletico vs. Levante.