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Derby test for resurgent Barca

MESSI-BACKMADRID, March 28 – Barcelona have the destiny of the tightest La Liga title race in years in their own hands after gaining six points on eternal rivals Real Madrid in the past week.

The Catalans followed up their 4-3 win in El Clasico against Real at the Bernabeu last Sunday with a routine 3-0 victory over Celta Vigo in midweek, whilst Los Blancos slipped to another defeat, 2-1 at Sevilla.

Atletico Madrid lead the way with eight games remaining, a point clear of Barca and three ahead of Real.

However, Barca host Atletico on the final day of the season in what could be a title decider.

It wasn’t quite a perfect week for Barcelona as goalkeeper Victor Valdes will miss the rest of the season after suffering cruciate ligament damage in his right knee against Celta.

Gerardo Martino’s men can also expect a difficult test this weekend as they visit city rivals Espanyol in the Catalan derby.

And midfielder Andres Iniesta insists they can’t let their concentration be swayed by the misfortune that has afflicted Valdes or their upcoming Champions League quarter-final against Atletico.

“Playing every three days there is no time to enjoy victory or let your head get down,” he told Barca TV.

“It is very difficult, but we need to keep going. Derbies are always very special occasions and the situation in the league makes this one even more important. We need to go there and win, although we are aware of how difficult that will be.

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“We are back in the fight for La Liga, which I think is just. Now every game is a final.”

– Pinto will replace Valdes –

Jose Manuel Pinto will replace Valdes for the rest of the season as Martino ruled out the possibility of signing a goalkeeper, which would have been allowed outside of the transfer window as an emergency measure.

Iniesta will be fit to start despite coming off at half-time against Celta due to a slight muscular injury, whilst Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Xavi will all return after all were rested in midweek.

By contrast, it has been an awful week for Real Madrid as having gone five months and 31 games in all competitions without tasting defeat, they were beaten twice in four days.

However, playmaker Isco believes there is still time to peg back Atletico and Barca as they did earlier in the season after a difficult start to the campaign.

“It was a big blow because it has changed the situation we were in until two games ago. We are Real Madrid and we are obliged to respond,” he told the club’s website.

“There are eight games left and we are totally confident that we can reverse the situation. We have already done so once this season. We were six points behind and there is no reason we can’t cut the gap now.”

Sergio Ramos and Angel di Maria will return for Real at home to Rayo Vallecano on Saturday as they were both suspended for the defeat in Seville.

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Atletico, meanwhile, on paper face the hardest game of the title challengers when they travel to fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao.

Diego Simeone’s men are though one of only two sides to have beaten Athletic at home since they moved to the new San Mames at the start of the season when they met in the Copa del Rey back in January.

Filipe Luis will come back into the Atletico side at left-back as he was suspended for the hard-fought 1-0 win over Granada on Wednesday.

Mario Suarez, Koke and Raul Garcia are also expected to start after being left out as Simeone rotated his squad in midweek.

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Saturday

Espanyol v Barcelona (1500), Celta Vigo v Sevilla (1700), Athletic Bilbao v Atletico Madrid (1900), Real Madrid v Rayo Vallecano (2100)

Sunday

Valladolid v Almeria (1100), Osasuna v Real Sociedad (1600), Villarreal v Elche (1800), Valencia v Getafe (2000)

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Monday

Granada v Levante (1900), Real Betis v Malaga (2100)

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