Barca in cruise control

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BARCELONA, January 29- League leaders Barcelona head into the second half of the season unbeaten and their imperious form shows little side of subsiding to allow Real Madrid to close the five-point gap at the top.They joined a select group of teams to go the first 19 games of the season without defeat after sweeping aside Valladolid and now it is the turn of Sporting Gijon to try and stop the side that won all six trophies they competed for in 2009.

Barca coach Pep Guardiola remains cautious though and believes there will be plenty of twists and turns still to come.

"This is just an anecdote, last year at this stage of the season we had a 12 point lead over Madrid and in the end we had to go to the Bernabeu and win," he said.

Barca have won their last three league games scoring 12 goals in the process and Xavi Hernandez’s performances have been instrumental.

He joined the debate this week about the sending off of Cristiano Ronaldo against Malaga that will see the Portuguese suspended for the next two matches.

Ronaldo swung his arm at Patrick Mtliga which led to his dismissal but there are strong claims from Madrid that he was unfairly treated as a similar incident involving Barcelona’s Leo Messi against Sevilla went unpunished.

"I don’t think you can compare the two situations because you have to take into consideration the intent. Leo wanted to keep playing and Cristiano wanted to hit out and then keep playing," said Xavi.

The loss of Ronaldo is a major blow for Real, who now take on Deportivo la Coruna, as they have become dependent on the Portuguese, who grabbed the two goals in the victory over Malaga.

Real are set still to be without Rafael Van der Vaart and Gonzalo Higuain for what will be a difficult match against a rejuvenated Deportivo side.

The Galicians will be missing Felipe Luis, who suffered a horrendous broken ankle last weekend against Athletic Bilbao and will lose the rest of the season.

Despite only managing a draw away to lowly Tenerife, Valencia are well placed to qualify for the Champions League but they face a crucial game against fellow aspirants Sevilla, who have dropped off the pace since Christmas after losing three of their last four matches.

"This is a final because if we win then we can have a big cushion above one of our strongest rivals. We are performing well but we need to keep this going as nobody is going to give us anything from now on," said Valencia striker David Villa.

Mallorca continue to be the real surprise this season as they fight among the top four in the championship.

They showed their resilience to draw with Espanyol after going a goal down and now will be looking for victory against bottom side Xerez, who are really struggling to pick up any points at the moment.

In fact the only point they have won in recent weeks was against Zaragoza who are in similar straits and are now suffering internal strife with captain Roberto Ayala having rescinded his contract.

They face a relegation battle against third-from bottom Tenerife.

Getafe and Athletic Bilbao, who take on Racing Santander and Espanyol respectively, are in the hunt for a place in Europe but also coming into the frame are Villarreal, who had a poor start to the season, and they play Osasuna.

Atletico Madrid face Malaga with the pressure on coach Quique Sanchez as the side has failed to show any real signs of improvement since he took over and the club is firmly rooted in mid-table.

There will be plenty of anxiety also in the clash between Valladolid and Almeria as they both lie on the fringes of the drop zone.

Fixtures (Times in GMT)

Saturday

Espanyol v Athletic Bilbao (17.00), Sporting v Barcelona (19.00), Deportivo la Coruna v Real Madrid (21.00)

Sunday (1600 GMT)

Villarreal v Osasuna, Valladolid v Almeria, Xerez v Mallorca, Tenerife v Zaragoza, Getafe v Racing Santander, Atletico Madrid v Malaga (18.00), Sevilla v Valencia (20.00)

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