Atletico, Madrid have it tough in Spanish league

PAUL LOGOTHETIS AP Sports Writer Published:

MADRID (AP) -- Atletico Madrid will carry the momentum from its Champions League draw at Barcelona into the domestic title race, even if the 1-1 quarterfinal result left the Spanish leaders without two of its top playmakers.

Atletico faces Villarreal without striker Diego Costa and midfielder Arda Turan, who both picked up injuries against Barcelona and will be rested ahead of the return leg against its closest league rival.

Atletico leads Barcelona, which plays last-place Real Betis, by one point with 76 points while Real Madrid is third with 73 points before its tough trip to Real Sociedad.

Here are five things to watch from the 32nd round of games in the Spanish league:

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ATLETICO HIGH

Atletico Madrid's 1-1 draw at Barcelona put the Spanish leader in prime position to advance to the Champions League semifinals for the first time since 1974, but it came at the cost of injuries.

But coach Diego Simeone is unlikely to rest any more key players when seventh-place Villarreal visits the Vicente Calderon on Saturday with Barcelona right on its heels in the Spanish league title race.

Striker Diego Costa and midfielder Arda Turan will rest with Wednesday's return leg against Barcelona in mind, offering first-leg standout Diego Ribas another chance to play, while Raul Garcia will likely return after missing the match at Barcelona to suspension.

"We're going to take advantage of our other forwards, like Raul Garcia, (David) Villa, and (Adrian) Lopez," Simeone said.

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BARCA WOES

While Barcelona's image off the field continues to take a hit from more negative news, the team remains in contention for three trophies this season.

On Wednesday, FIFA banned Barcelona from signing any players in the next two transfer windows because breaching regulations in signing youth players. The punishment also comes on the heels of the drawn-out legal case surrounding Neymar's signing. The Brazil striker's arrival ultimately cost president Sandro Rosell his job.

Now, the Catalans must dismiss more off-field problems and focus on last-place Real Betis, which hopes spring a similar upset to that of emulate fellow struggler fellow struggler Real Valladolid, which beat Barcelona 1-0 at home.

Against Atletico, Lionel Messi was held off the score sheet for the first time in six games but Neymar responded with the team's lone goal.

"I'm happy since I'm getting back to what I used to be," Neymar said.

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MADRID REBOUNDS

After a two-game losing streak that took it from first to third, Real Madrid has won two straight games to recover its confidence going into the final stretch of the domestic title race.

It's going to need it with a difficult trip Saturday to Real Sociedad, which is trying to maintain its pursuit of qualifying for next season's Champions League.

Sociedad trails fourth-place Athletic Bilbao, which travels to Levante on Monday, by six points with seven rounds remaining.

Madrid may be without Cristiano Ronaldo after he left Wednesday's 3-0 victory over Borussia Dortmund with his left knee hurting. Forward Angel Di Maria should return after missing the Dortmund match because of a stomach virus.

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PEPE LAUDED

Real Madrid defender Pepe was given rousing applause by fans at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Wednesday as his strong defensive performance helped Madrid beat Borussia Dortmund 3-0. The support came days after Ronaldo was jeered at the Bernabeu.

"It's fantastic, it's the result of my work over the course of the season," said Pepe, whose jovial character off the field is a far cry from the brutish one he displays on it.

"Pepe didn't just play a good game tonight -- he's had a great season," Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said.

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BARTRA STEPS UP

Barcelona's defense was dealt a blow against Atletico when Gerard Pique sustained a hairline fracture of his right hip, but replacement Marc Bartra showed great confidence while filling in for the Spain international.

Bartra played perhaps the best match of his young Barcelona career after replacing Pique early on against Atletico, and the 23-year-old center back is expected to partner Javier Mascherano going forward with Pique sidelined for one month.

"He's a center back with so many strengths," Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino said. "The only thing that surprises me about him is the speed with which he settled into the game without even really warming up. He showed a lot of personality."

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