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5 things to know about the Spanish league

November 28, 2013

MADRID (AP) — Injury-hit Barcelona is coming off its first loss of the season ahead of perhaps its toughest domestic league match of the young season, an away date at Athletic Bilbao.

Real Madrid is on a roll, unbeaten in six games, heading into the home date against Valladolid, while Atletico Madrid is at Elche. Both of Barcelona’s pursuers can put the pressure on the Spanish leader with victories in their games on Saturday, a day earlier than the defending champion.

Barcelona leads the standings with 40 points, Atletico has 37, and Madrid is third with 34 points.

Here are five things to know about the Spanish league this weekend:

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TIME TO MAN UP

Barcelona did not need a deep analysis of Tuesday’s 2-1 loss at Ajax to know where the problems lay.

It wasn’t so much its play or tactics, but a lack of hunger and desire shown by the players after having already clinched a spot in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Coach Gerardo Martino and players Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique, and Carles Puyol all criticized the team’s attitude and how it needed changing. Sunday’s game at Athletic Bilbao is certainly a good way to get the team’s competitive edge back — Barcelona hasn’t lost at Athletic in nearly eight years.

The Catalans remain without forward Lionel Messi and goalkeeper Victor Valdes, while the club will hope Xavi Hernandez, Jordi Alba, Dani Alves, and Adriano are available for the trip to the Basque country.

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CHANGE OF SCENERY

Bilbao is hoping the move to the new San Mames Stadium will herald a turn of results against Barcelona.

Barcelona plays at Bilbao’s new home, which stands beside the old stadium on the banks of the Nervion River, for the first time Sunday.

Bilbao will have to ditch a dangerous trend this season if it hopes to beat Barcelona for the first time since May 2006: It has come from behind to win four times and draw twice in 14 games this season.

Under coach Ernesto Valverde, Bilbao has returned to a free-flowing style of football that led the Basque club to the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals two seasons ago before the exits of Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente.

“They haven’t lost in the league yet and it would be great if their first loss was at the (new) San Mames, where they have yet to beat us,” forward Iker Muniain said. “We’re certainly playing well at the moment.”

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‘EL COMMANDANTE’ RETURNS?

Real Madrid will probably decide shortly before kickoff whether to field Cristiano Ronaldo in Sunday’s match against Valladolid at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

Judging by the tributes paid to the Portugal international during Wednesday’s 4-1 Champions League win over Galatasaray — which Ronaldo missed — it would seem the home fans would like him to return from his hamstring injury to play.

Cardboard cutout masks featuring Ronaldo’s likeness were handed out to fans to wear in the stadium, and a giant banner was unfurled by one members club calling for Ronaldo to win the Ballon d’Or.

Ronaldo has scored 25 goals for Madrid, which has outscored opponents 26-8 on its current run. Valladolid is 17th in the standings.

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TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?

Everyone is waiting for Atletico Madrid’s impressive start to the season to come to a halt, with the “other” Madrid club sitting just three points off first-place Barcelona.

Atletico routed Getafe 7-0 last weekend, which led coach Diego Simeone to call the Spanish league “boring” due to the disparity between Barcelona, Madrid and the other 18 clubs.

Simeone is hoping his team will still be among the leaders in the final stretch of the season.

“We don’t live off of what happened today to keep us happy or not. We’re in a championship where each game we take on each rival as if it was another final,” Simeone said. “When there are (five to seven) games remaining then we’ll look at the table and see where we are. But we’re miles away from that.”

Atletico is coming off a 1-1 draw at Zenit St. Petersburg in the Champions League.

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ON THE HOT SEAT

Malaga coach Bernd Schuster and Valencia counterpart Miroslav Djukic will need to guide their teams to victory in the 15th round of games or face the possibility of the sack.

Schuster was berated following Malaga’s 2-1 loss to Bilbao, when the German coach’s inability to read the game and make the correct adjustments allowed Bilbao to rally for an away victory.

Djukic has been under pressure all season with Valencia languishing mid-table in a season without Champions League football, with apparent differences between players and coach appearing to be an issue.

Malaga has the tougher task with a match at fourth-place Villarreal on Friday, while Valencia welcomes Osasuna to the Mestalla Stadium on Sunday.

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Follow Paul Logothetis on Twitter @PaulLogoAP

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