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Crunch time for Barcelona

MADRID, April 24 – Barcelona will be desperate to maintain their six-point cushion over Real Madrid on a crucial weekend in the Spanish League before the two giants meet in the 'El Clasico' at the Santiago Bernabeu.

SAMUEL_ETO'OBarcelona have one of their toughest remaining fixtures on Saturday with a trip to Champions League chasing Valencia.

Real also have a difficult task as they travel to the intimidating Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium on Sunday to tackle third-placed Sevilla who defeated the champions earlier in the season.

It is coach Juande Ramos’s first return to Sevilla who he guided to back-to-back UEFA Cup wins in 2006 and 2007 before an ill-fated move to Tottenham Hotspur.

"I love the city and the fans were always marvellous with me," said Ramos. "This match is Sevilla against Real Madrid not Sevilla versus Juande Ramos."

Barcelona play first on the Saturday hoping to open a nine-point gap at the top.

It is the clash of the ‘Pichichi’ contenders as the top two scorers in the league – Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o and Valencia’s David Villa – face off at the Mestalla Stadium.

Eto’o leads the goalscoring charts with 27 while Spanish international Villa, who has been linked with a summer move to Barcelona, has 25.

"We have to play the way we do and Madrid theirs," said Eto’o. "It does not bother me where we win the league, it only bothers me that we win it.

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"I hope that we do not pick up any injuries and that we can continue like this until the end of the season."

Barcelona need Eto’o and company at their best with a make-or-break sequence of four games in 11 days.

The Valencia test is followed by two Champions League semi-final legs against Chelsea with ‘El Clasico’ sandwiched in between.

Valencia were thrashed 4-0 by Barcelona earlier in the season so will want to set the record straight and maintain their Champions League push.

Unai Emery’s side are trying to hold onto fourth, but must breach a Barcelona defence that have not conceded in the league since March 1st with Victor Valdes keeping seven clean sheets.

Real fans are still recovering from their rollercoaster 3-2 win over Getafe on Tuesday but coach Ramos has been left with several selection problems ahead of Sunday’s trip to Sevilla.

Portuguese centre-back Pepe will be missing through suspension following his red card against Getafe and could be hit with a long ban for violent conduct after kicking out at midfielder Francisco Casquero and then palming Juan Albin in the face.

Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain, the hero against Getafe, is also suspended for the Sevilla trip and Dutch winger Arjen Robben sustained a leg injury that will also sideline him for the crunch duel against Barcelona.

Add Wesley Sneijder’s month lay-off to that list and it is down to the bare bones for Ramos at a crucial time of the season.

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Villarreal achieved direct qualification to the Champions League last season with second place but are struggling just to get in the top four this season.

A 2-1 win over Recreativo Huelva on Thursday helped them close to within three points of Valencia and they face another relegation-threatened team on Sunday in Getafe.

Getafe need to pick themselves up from the painful Real defeat as they fight to stay in the top divison.

Francisco Casquero has been dropped from penalty duties after his embarassing miss against Real when his poor chipped effort was held by Iker Casillas.

"Looking at it again, the decision to try and chip it was not wise," explained Getafe coach Victor Munoz. "The next penalty will be taken by someone with more conviction."

Atletico Madrid have fallen six points off the Champions League places and need to beat Sporting Gijon on Sunday to keep their faint hopes alive.

Fixtures

Saturday
Malaga v Deportivo La Coruna 1800 GMT, Almeria v Numancia 1800 GMT, Valencia v Barcelona 2000 GMT

Sunday (1500 GMT unless stated)
Getafe v Villarreal, Recreativo Huelva v Real Mallorca, Valladolid v Osasuna, Athletic Bilbao v Racing Santander, Espanyol v Real Betis, Sevilla v Real Madrid 1700 GMT Atletico Madrid v Sporting Gijon 1900 GMT

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