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Friday, 20 January 2012

Real Madrid wary of Bilbao after loss to Barcelona

Madrid: Spanish leaders Real Madrid will be wary of a surging Athletic Bilbao as they look to shake off another disappointing loss to Barcelona and focus on maintaining their five-point lead over the defending champions.

Bilbao, who have won three straight and are unbeaten in seven matches, are fifth in the league and in the chase for a European place, maybe even a Champions League spot, under new coach Marcelo Bielsa going into Sunday's game at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.

Marca newspaper reported on Friday that Madrid coach Jose Mourinho will leave Pepe out of the squad following the Portugal defender's performance in Wednesday's 2-1 Copa del Rey loss to Barcelona, when he stamped on Lionel Messi's hand.

Pepe has been Madrid's most used centerback since his arrival in 2007, but Madrid may have seen enough after his ferocious temper - he was once banned for 10 games for stamping on a player's back unprovoked - got the better of him again against Barcelona.

Mourinho may not rush injured forward Angel di Maria back against Bilbao, with the return leg of the Copa del Rey tie at Barcelona's Camp Nou on Wednesday.

Bielsa came under fire after Bilbao started with only two points from their first five matches, but the Argentine coach has dramatically turned the tide with his young, talented team winning 14 of their 24 matches in all competitions since, with only two losses.

Spain striker Fernando Llorente has returned after missing more than a month to injury, while Iker Muniain remains a potential call-up to Spain's Euro 2012 team as the teenage forward continues to thrive under Bielsa.

"He's improved with every game since the start of the season," Bielsa said of the Spain Under-21 international, who alongside Llorente, Javi Martinez and Andoni Iraiola could help the European champions defend their crown in Poland and Ukraine come June. "The team is cohesive, compact and playing assuredly."

Barcelona, meanwhile, travel to Malaga to close out the first half of the season in which they have struggled on the road.

The European champions have managed to collect just 13 of 24 points in eight away games this season, and they cannot afford to drop many more points if they hope to catch Madrid, who have won the league 23 of 32 times when they finished the first half of the season at the top of the table.

"(We) feel like when we are ourselves and play like we know, no team can beat us," Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said.

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola admitted that Messi is not 100 percent after the Madrid win, when the Argentina international set up Eric Abidal for the late winner.

"He'll find his form, we can never doubt him," Guardiola said of the three-time Ballon d'Or winner. "It's a long season and competing against such physical players like (Madrid have) it's easy to throw him off."

Malaga are eighth in the standings, three points back of sixth-placed Osasuna as they face third-placed Valencia, who are looking to bounce back from last week's league loss.
Sevilla and Real Betis play the first Sevilla derby in nearly three years on Saturday, while Villarreal will bid to finish the first half of the season out of the drop zone with a victory over Sporting Gijon on Monday.

Villarreal are 19th in the 20-team league, three points from safety in a nightmare season that has seen them exit the Champions League and cup competitions without a victory. 'The Yellow Submarine' have gone 10 games overall without a win.

In other 19th-round games, it's - Espanyol vs Granada; Racing Santander vs Getafe; Real Sociedad vs Atletico Madrid; Rayo Vallecano vs Mallorca; and Levante vs Zaragoza.


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