Barca looking to bounce back

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MADRID, February 18- Champions Barcelona will hope to put their mid-week Champions League defeat at Arsenal behind them by getting back on track in the league with a home win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

Barcelona saw their record run of 16 consecutive league wins come to an end with a 1-1 draw at Sporting Gijon last time out and then went down 2-1 to Arsenal in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie on Wednesday.

Second-place Real Madrid closed the gap at the top to five points last weekend but Barcelona winger Pedro Rodriguez believes there is no reason to panic, insisting his side had anticipated a long battle for the title.

"There has always been a title race, even when the gap was seven points," said Pedro.

"It is going to be a long championship and we knew Real Madrid wouldn’t give up. We are calm and have a five-point lead at the top so we just want to carry on."

Barcelona need to lift their spirits after losing to Arsenal despite David Villa having given them a first-half lead, but they are up against a Bilbao team that are flying high in fifth.

Barcelona are unbeaten in the league since their surprising 2-0 home loss to Hercules in mid-September but will not want to drop any more points to encourage Jose Mourinho’s chasing Real Madrid side.

Real have had an extended rest, with their Champions League trip to Lyon not until February 22, ahead of Saturday’s home match against promoted Levante.

Madrid have won all 11 of their home matches at the Santiago Bernabeu this season and Portuguese centre-back Pepe believes Mourinho is capable of reeling in Barcelona in the title race.

"The more they attack (Jose) Mourinho, the more we want to win," Pepe said.

Levante, two points above the relegation zone, drew 0-0 with Real earlier in the season but were thrashed 8-0 by them in the King’s Cup and will be gunning for revenge.

Levante can take heart from the absence of Real’s first-choice goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who is suspended after his red card in the 1-0 win at Espanyol last weekend.

Antonio Adan made his Madrid league debut after Casillas was sent off two minutes into the Espanyol game and the 23-year-old, who came through the ranks at Real, could start against Levante as Jerzy Dudek is still struggling with injury.

In other matches, Atletico Madrid travel to Real Zaragoza on Saturday with under-pressure coach Quique Sanchez Flores desperate for a win to save his job.

Atletico have lost their last four league matches to drop to 11th and are seven points off the top six.

Sevilla are another big side having a difficult season and host promoted Hercules on Sunday with former Mali striker Frederic Kanoute admitting hopes of a top-four finish are now out of the question.

"We have to be realists and think that the target is now the Europa League," said Kanoute.

Sevilla, fourth last season, are 14 points off the Champions League places and have a battle to get into Europe at all as they lie six points behind sixth-placed Espanyol.

Elsewhere, Jose Luis Mendilibar, the new coach of third-bottom Osasuna, takes charge for the first time in Sunday’s home match against Espanyol.

Fixtures

Saturday:

Valencia v Sporting Gijon (1700GMT), Real Madrid v Levante (1900GMT), Real Zaragoza v Atletico Madrid (2100GMT)

Sunday (1600GMT unless otherwise stated):

Getafe v Racing Santander, Villarreal v Malaga, Almeria v Deportivo La Coruna, Osasuna v Espanyol, Sevilla v Hercules (1800GMT), Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao (2000GMT)

Monday:

Real Sociedad v Real Mallorca (2000GMT)

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