Almost out of Europe, Barcelona can win league
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -On the brink of exiting the Champions League, Barcelona can find some immediate solace by clinching its 22nd Spanish league title this weekend.
The Catalan club will win its fourth domestic trophy in five seasons if beats Athletic Bilbao on Saturday and Atletico Madrid breaks its 24-game winless run against Real Madrid, which is also facing elimination from the Champions League semifinals.
Bayern Munich brushed aside Barcelona 4-0 in the first leg on Tuesday, and German club Dortmund Borussia beat Madrid 4-1 the following day.
"The result and not being up to the challenge posed by Bayern were tough blows,'' Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said. "(But) now we must change our focus. When you are league champion the season is never a bad one. If we think that not winning the Champions League means it has been a bad year, we are mistaken.''
Barcelona forward Lionel Messi was only cleared to play from a nagging right hamstring injury hours before the match in Germany and was a shadow of his usual incisive self.
Barcelona is clinging to hopes of what would be a historic comeback in Wednesday's return leg at Camp Nou, and with winning the domestic title a matter of time, it is likely coach Tito Vilanova will rest the Argentina international again on Saturday.
Messi has sat out the last three Spanish league games since hurting his leg on April 2, putting pause on his record 19-game scoring run. Without him, Barcelona has gotten three wins by an aggregate score of 9-0.
"Everyone is surprised that a team like Barcelona lost 4-0,'' Bilbao defender Mikel San Jose said. "Bayern is strong, but such a big defeat was surprising for all.
"Barcelona will come with the same mentality, regardless. Lately, players who don't get as many minutes have been playing for them in the league and they have been winning with relative ease anyway.''
Barcelona thrashed Bilbao 5-1 in their first meeting this season, and the Basque side needs to be careful it doesn't fall further down the standings and get caught in a late-season relegation fight. It is in 14th place, eight points clear of the drop with six rounds to go.
Reclaiming the league title from Madrid not only depends on Barcelona taking three points from San Mames, but also on Atletico ending its wretched record against the defending champions.
With Madrid's return leg against Dortmund coming on Tuesday and Barcelona in front by 13 points in the league, Atletico is hoping its rivals rest some first-choice players for the match at Vicente Calderon Stadium.
Real Madrid captain Iker Casillas recognized that while the derby is always a highlighted fixture, his team "knows that the more important game is on Tuesday.''
Madrid has recent history on its side. Jose Mourinho's team has beaten Atletico 18 times in their last 24 meetings, with Atletico only being able to salvage six draws since its last victory over Madrid in 1999.
Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo has been particularly sharp against Atletico, scoring six times in their last three league meetings.
Atletico is fighting for more than just pride. A win would level it on points with Madrid in their battle for a runner-up finish and would give it a huge boost of confidence for the Copa del Rey final to be played against Madrid on May 17.
"It's true that our recent results against them have not been good, but we now have another opportunity,'' Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. "I think we should also look at how many years it has been since we were in a situation to compete with them (this late in the season) in the standings, and not just at this game. I don't think that our fans would chose winning one of these games over the other. Our fans want to win this league match and the (Copa del Rey) final.''
Atletico will be able to count on forward Diego Costa after the league's competition committee removed a fifth yellow card he had been given in last weekend's win at Sevilla.
Real Sociedad hosts Valencia on Sunday in a key match for the battle for fourth place and Spain's final Champions League berth.
Sociedad is two points above fifth-place Valencia and hasn't lost in 14 rounds, while the visitors have only been defeated once in their last 12 games.
"This game is going to determine the future of Valencia and many players, there will be a lot pressure,'' Valencia defender Ali Cissokho said.
Also Saturday, second-to-last Celta Vigo visits Levante, while last-place Real Zaragoza hosts relegation-threatened Mallorca with only one point separating them.
On Friday, Rayo Vallecano hosts Osasuna. Also Sunday, it's: Espanyol vs. Granada; Malaga vs. Getafe; and Valladolid vs. Sevilla. Deportivo La Coruna visits Real Betis on Monday.
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