Barca, Madrid have last Liga teaser before clasico
Coming off emphatic Champions League victories, Spanish leader Barcelona and Real Madrid prepare for one last domestic league game before an expected onslaught of "clasico" matchups between the pair.
Barcelona plays last-place Almeria on Saturday when Madrid is at Athletic Bilbao as the rivals prime for their April 16 league game at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. The pair then meet in the Copa del Rey final four days later and should face off in a Champions League semifinal series with both holding sizable advantages against their opponents.
In their quarterfinal first leg games, Madrid crushed Tottenham 4-0 and Barcelona routed Shakhtar Donetsk 5-1 to set up the possibility of four clasico matches in 18 days.
With Madrid trailing Barcelona by eight points in the standings, coach Jose Mourinho may even rest several players for the game at the San Mames, with many rushed back from injury against Tottenham.
Karim Benzema appears to have overcome a leg injury but Mourinho may rest the France striker alongside forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria with Wednesday's return leg at White Hart Lane still to play.
The San Mames has traditionally provided a hostile atmosphere for Madrid, although the Spanish giant has won five of its last six trips there. Fifth-place Bilbao is nine points behind Villarreal for the last Champions League qualifying place as it looks to secure a European spot for next season.
Kaka made an encouraging return after being sidelined for over one month as the Brazil playmaker delivered to Ronaldo for the final goal against Tottenham.
"Kaka's return is very good news as he's a player with lots of experience in the Champions League and class to play these games," Mourinho said.
Lionel Messi may get a rest for Barcelona, which is looking to stretch its club record unbeaten run to 29 games against an opponent that is sitting four points from safety.
"We hope for the win so we can go to the Bernabeu with the best advantage possible," said Barcelona forward Pedro Rodriguez, who returned from injury to play against Shakhtar. "We need to go little-by-little and find our best form since there are a lot of tough games coming up."
Barcelona's players were trying not to overlook Tuesday's match in Donetsk although it was difficult to avoid talking about the chance of playing so many clasicos. The bitter rivals will meet seven times in 2011 with a Spanish Supercup two-legged series in August ahead of next season's first clasico in the autumn.
"It can be something nice, a great achievement for us but it's still too early to say," Pedro said. "It's never happened before, it could be nice."
Former sporting director Roberto Olabe takes charge of Almeria, which is winless in five games, after it made its second coaching change of the season by firing Jose Luis Oltra on Monday. Oltra had replaced Juan Manuel Lillo, who was fired after an 8-0 loss to Barcelona earlier this season.
Also, Valencia and Villarreal meet Sunday in a regional derby with both trying to consolidate third place.
Valencia leads Villarreal by three points but has lost six of the last 10 meetings between the two teams.
"It wouldn't be definitive but it would be an important step which would provide a good gap between us," Valencia winger Joaquin Sanchez said.
Valencia is 24 points behind Barcelona with eight games to play to leave Madrid as the only team capable of catching the two-time defending champion.
In other 31st-round games, it's: Mallorca vs. Sevilla; Sporting Gijon vs. Osasuna; Hercules vs. Espanyol; Racing Santander vs. Levante; Malaga vs. Deportivo La Coruna; Atletico Madrid vs. Real Sociedad; and Zaragoza vs. Getafe.