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Barcelona faces final hurdles in Spanish league title race

AP , Thursday 17 Mar 2016
Barcelona
Barcelona players celebrate their second goal during the Champions League round of 16 second leg soccer match between FC Barcelona and Arsenal FC at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. (AP)
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Barcelona theoretically has only two difficult games to overcome on its way to securing a second straight Spanish league title, and they will come right away in consecutive rounds.

The Catalan club plays at fourth-place Villarreal on Sunday and then hosts third-place Real Madrid in the following round.

If it survives this stretch, Barcelona takes on opponents that are near the bottom of the standings as it closes in on the title. All of its final seven opponents are 10th or worse on the table, with some near the relegation zone.

The next two rounds will give Atletico Madrid its last chance to try to catch up to Barcelona, which has been holding an eight-point lead for the last six rounds. Real Madrid is 12 points back, virtually out of contention.

While Barcelona plays away against one of the toughest teams in the league this season, Atletico on Saturday faces struggling Sporting Gijon, which is second-to-last in the standings. Although the game is in Gijon, the host has lost four in a row and hasn't won at home in five consecutive rounds.

''In the final part of the season many of the bottom teams start beating the top teams,'' Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. ''It's never easy.''

Unbeaten in 38 games in all competitions, Barcelona has 75 points from 29 games. It has won 12 straight league games, and on Wednesday advanced to the quarterfinals of the Champions League with a 3-1 win over Arsenal at the Camp Nou.

Here are other things to watch this weekend in the Spanish league:

Unstoppable trio

Barcelona continues to rely on the attacking power of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, who together have scored 106 goals in all competitions and remain on course to beat the record of 122 they set last season.

Each scored a goal in the team's Champions League victory against Arsenal on Wednesday.

''They help us create pressure and they get back to defend as well, which every team needs in any competition,'' Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. ''Suarez, Messi and Neymar feed off each other. I am pleased they're our forwards.''

Upbeat Atletico

Atletico enters the game at Sporting Gijon still savoring Tuesday's win over PSV Eindhoven in the round of 16 of the Champions League, when it advanced after a thrilling 8-7 win on penalties following a 0-0 draw in regulation and extra time.

''We have to think that on Saturday we have a match and we have to recover after 120 minutes,'' striker Fernando Torres said.

Diego Simeone's team is keeping its title chances alive in the Spanish league thanks to its tough defense, just like it did when it won the competition two seasons ago.

Atletico has conceded only one goal in its last eight games in all competitions. It has the Spanish league's best defense with only 12 goals conceded in 29 matches.

Benzema returns

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane may be able to count on striker Karim Benzema when the team plays fifth-place Sevilla on Sunday at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

The French striker has missed several games after injuring a right leg muscle in the 1-0 home loss to Atletico Madrid in the Spanish league last month.

Real Madrid trails Atletico by four points and has a 10-point lead over fourth-place Villarreal, which hosts Barcelona on Saturday.

Sevilla is five points behind Villarreal, still in contention for a Champions League spot next season.

Relegation fight

The fight against relegation is getting tighter near the end of the Spanish league.

Five teams are within five points of relegation zone, which currently is occupied by Getafe, Sporting Gijon and Levante.

The gap between last-place Levante and 16th-place Rayo Vallecano is only three points.

The bottom three in the 20-team standings are demoted to the second division.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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