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5 things to know about the Spanish league

October 3, 2013

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona and Atletico Madrid both host lower-table opponents as they try to maintain their perfect records through eight rounds atop the Spanish league. Neymar may be asked to lead Barcelona again with Lionel Messi out, but Atletico’s Diego Costa has been the best player in the competition so far. Third-place Real Madrid visits a stingy Levante side with pressure mounting on coach Carlo Ancelotti to get his team playing like title contenders. Here are five things to know about this weekend’s games:

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COSTA’S MOMENT

For the first time in recent memory, the most talked-about player in Spain doesn’t play for Barcelona or Madrid. After his dominant performance in last round’s 1-0 victory at Madrid, Atletico striker Diego Costa is enjoying the best moment of his career. The Brazilian forward has steered Atletico to a perfect start, and he and his teammates will look to make it eight-for-eight on Sunday at home against the slumping Celta Vigo. Diego Costa and Lionel Messi are tied as the league’s leading scorers with eight goals each. So with Messi sidelined for at least another week, Diego Costa can move in front of the Argentine by scoring against a weak Celta defense. Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque has hinted that he is considering calling up Diego Costa, who holds both Brazilian and Spanish citizenship, for the squad he will announce on Friday.

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CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM

Even a 4-0 thrashing of Copenhagen in the Champions League won’t satisfy Real Madrid’s disgruntled supporters. Ancelotti and struggling striker Karim Benzema were both jeered by the Santiago Bernabeu fans for a second consecutive home game on Wednesday. Luckily for them, Madrid travels to Levante on Saturday. Madrid lost at home to fierce rival Atletico last weekend and has not played well of late. Leaving aside the disappointment at seeing its 100-million-euro man Gareth Bale out with another leg injury, many of Madrid’s fans are angry over the sale of Mesut Ozil and Gonzalo Higuain, who are playing well for their new teams while Benzema misses chance after chance. Ancelotti said after the rout of Copenhagen that he considered the jeers to be constructive criticism. “The whistling isn’t bad. It helps me to be more concentrated. It stimulates me.” Benzema, for his part, said: “I understand the fans’ message. I respect their opinion. Our stadium is very demanding, but I understand them.”

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LEVANTE’S DEFENSE

After conceding seven goals— six in the first half— at Barcelona in a horrendous season opener, Levante has become one of the league’s toughest teams to score on. Levante has allowed just four goals and gone without a defeat in its other six games. New coach Joaquin Caparros’ focus on defense and Keylor Navas’ sound goalkeeping have been key. Next up, Levante will have to stop Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo after he scored a double in the Champions League midweek. Two seasons ago, Levante stunned Jose Mourinho’s Madrid at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium, and another poor performance would spark more criticism for his successor.

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BARTRA, MAYBE PUYOL

Neymar showed in Tuesday’s 1-0 win at Celtic in the Champions League that, despite being new to the team, he was more than ready to step up for Barcelona with Messi unavailable. But injury problems have also provided an opportunity for 22-year-old Marc Bartra to shine in the center of defense. Over the past week Bartra has played perhaps his best two matches for Barcelona with defenders Carles Puyol, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba hurt. Barcelona hosts Valladolid on Saturday seeking an eighth straight win to start the season to make sure it keeps hold of the league lead. Puyol, who has yet to play this season, is reportedly close to returning for the Catalan club and could make the squad for this weekend.

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HIGHLIGHT MATCH

Athletic Bilbao hosts Valencia on Sunday with both teams two points out of fourth place and the last Champions League spot. In a matter of two weeks, Valencia has apparently turned things around with three straight league victories following a stretch of four consecutive losses in all competitions. Brazilian forward Jonas has netted the decisive goal in the trio of triumphs for Valencia. Bilbao is perfect at home through three games but has yet to win away and suffered a humbling 2-0 defeat at Granada last round.

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