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El Clasico the main course as La Liga enters final stretch

Madrid: The "Clasico" between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid is the undoubted highlight as the La Liga returns to action this weekend, but there are several other vital matches as the Spanish football league goes into the final stretch.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo

Although Saturday's match in the Camp Nou Stadium probably won't have much influence on the destination of the title, which looks certain to remain in Barcelona, there is pride at stake and even more so for Real Madrid after the Catalans inflicted a painful 4-0 defeat on them on their home turf earlier this season, reports Xinhua news agency.

Meanwhile the death of Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff has given the game an extra emotional edge with the home players keen to turn the game into homage to the man responsible for changing the club's fortunes both as a player and a coach.

Barcelona are slightly handicapped by having had more players on international duty (especially in South America) than Real Madrid and they have also lost central defender Jeremy Mathieu until the rest of the season with a knee injury he suffered while playing for France in the week.

Should Barcelona drop points, Atletico Madrid, who kick off the weekend nine points behind the league leaders and who will face them in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, would hope to close the gap in their home game against Real Betis.

Atletico are without central defenders Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin, although Stefan Savic should be available after injury.

Valencia sacked head coach Gary Neville on Wednesday and his replacement until the end of the season, Pako Ayestaran, has a tricky debut as his new side travel to an in-form Las Palmas.

Defeat for Valencia would drag them very much into the battle against relegation and it is hard to understand why the Valencia board didn't take their decision over Neville earlier in the international break.

The Clasico is at 8.30 p.m. local time which means it will overshadow the Galicia derby between Celta Vigo and Deportivo la Coruna late on Saturday night.

Deportivo's win over Levante a fortnight ago lifts them away from the danger zone, while Celta are fighting for a place in Europe next season.

Europe and avoiding relegation are on the agenda at Sunday lunchtime when Athletic Club Bilbao, who welcome back striker Inaki Williams after injury but lose Aymeric Laporte with broken ankle, face Granada in the San Mames stadium.

Malaga look to continue their impressive second half in the campaign at home to Espanyol, who are not quite free of the threat of relegation, while Villarreal need to win away to Eibar in order to cement their grip on fourth place following a poor run of results.

Should Villarreal fail to win Sevilla could close the gap on them as they look for their 17th consecutive home win at home to a Real Sociedad side in a poor run of form.

The round of matches ends on Monday with a key relegation battle as Levante take on Sporting Gijon in a match neither of the two can afford to lose if they want to stay up.

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