Tough Tests Await La Liga's Title Contenders
Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid all face difficult games this weekend as they return to La Liga action after qualifying for the Copa del Rey semifinals in midweek.
Just one point separates the top three with Barca and Atletico leading the way on 54 points, but a five-game winning run in the league has brought Madrid right back into the hunt with 17 games still to go.
It is Real who appear to have the stiffest test of all this weekend, though, as they travel to the in-form Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Athletic suffered their first defeat in 13 games since moving to the new San Mames as they bowed out to Atletico in the Cup on Wednesday night.
However, in the league Ernesto Valverde's men have been unstoppable of late, scoring 15 times in their last three matches to move five points clear in the battle for the fourth and final Champions League place.
That efficiency in front of goal will be put to the test against a Real side that set a club record in their 1-0 win over Espanyol on Tuesday by not conceding for the eighth consecutive game.
Carlo Ancelotti's men have won 10 games in a row in all competitions and haven't been beaten in 20 stretching back to mid-October.
However, with Athletic already having inflicted Barcelona's only league defeat of the season, the Italian is well aware what to expect in the Basque country.
"It is a very important and difficult game.
Bilbao are playing very well and to play at San Mames isn't easy for anyone, Barcelona have lost there.
"For us it is a very good time to play there because we are playing with a lot of confidence and are desperate to win.
" Welsh winger Gareth Bale missed the win over Espanyol due to a calf problem that forced him off against Granada last weekend.
Bale remains a doubt after he was unable to take part in a training session with his teammates on Thursday.
However, despite Jese Rodriguez's fine form of late, Ancelotti insisted Bale would start on Sunday if he is fit.
"If Bale is fine then he will play.
If he is not then Jese is an option because he is very dangerous at the moment.
" Real could start the game four points off the top, though, as Barcelona are the first of the title contenders in action this weekend when they host Valencia on Saturday.
The Catalans have responded to the institutional uncertainty surrounding the club after the resignation of president Sandro Rosell last week with two convincing wins over Malaga and Levante.
Coach Gerardo Martino was also able to rest the majority of his stars against Levante in midweek, so the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Gerard Pique will return to the starting line-up for the visit of Los Che.
There has also been upheaval at Valencia in recent days, more directly linked to the playing squad, as Dorlan Pabon, Helder Postiga and Andres Guardado all left on loan.
Former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita has arrived on a short-term deal until the end of the season but will not be involved against his old club after not being included in coach Juan Antonio Pizzi's squad.
Meanwhile, Atletico will be looking to extend their unbeaten home record to 20 games when they host sixth-placed Real Sociedad on Sunday.
Diego Simeone's men will be without left-back Filipe Luis after he was stretchered off in the win over Athletic on Wednesday.
However, Arda Turan, Tiago and David Villa should be fit to retake their places in the starting line up.
FIXTURES (all times GMT +2) FRIDAY Granada v Celta Vigo (2200) SATURDAY Barcelona v Valencia (1700) Levante v Rayo Vallecano (1900) Getafe v Valladolid (2100) Malaga v Sevilla (2300) SUNDAY Elche v Almeria (1300) Real Betis v Espanyol (1800) Atletico Madrid v Real Sociedad (2000) Athletic Bilbao v Real Madrid (2200) MONDAY Villarreal v Osasuna (2300) SUPERSPORT