Football

5 things to know about the Spanish league

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Real Madrid has to stay focused on its trip to Malaga in order to maintain its advantage over Barcelona one week before the Spanish league rivals meet in a "clasico" match that could have big implications in the title race.

Madrid leads Atletico Madrid by three points, with Barcelona four points behind the leaders after their slip-up at Valladolid last weekend. Barcelona welcomes relegation-battling Osasuna on Sunday, while Atletico hosts Espanyol a day earlier.

Madrid and Barcelona meet at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on March 23. Here are five things to know about the 28th round of games ahead of the "clasico":

NO DOUBTING MESSI

Lionel Messi quickly beat back criticism of his recent play with a goalscoring performance in guiding Barcelona to a 2-1 victory over Manchester City in the Champions League.

Barcelona was not quite at its best, but with Messi looking motivated and playing with intensity the Catalans secured their familiar place in the last eight of Europe's elite competition.

"I don't know if the criticisms were exaggerated or not, but after losing we are the first to criticize ourselves," Messi said. "The league isn't lost, there still remains a lot to play for."

RESTED MADRID

After a week without action, Real Madrid will be well-rested ahead of its trip to Malaga on Saturday.

Madrid is unbeaten in 29 games overall and former coach Bernd Schuster would like nothing more than to disrupt the Spanish leader's run at the expense of improving his team's hopes of survival.

Schuster was fired by Madrid early in the 2009-10 season after saying it would be impossible to beat rival Barcelona, which was coached by Pep Guardiola and nine points clear atop the table.

Madrid forward Angel di Maria may not play being one booking away from suspension.

ATLETICO'S CHARACTER

Atletico Madrid's 4-1 thumping of AC Milan in the Champions League displayed all of the title hopefuls attributes: teamwork, physicality, and finesse.

And striker Diego Costa continues to embody those characteristics as he took his season goal tally to 29 in all competitions, with 21 in the league.

The Vicente Calderon Stadium helped inspire the Rojiblancos against Milan, and the home crowd can help it avenge the club's lone defeat of the first half of the season against Espanyol when the team visits.

MADRID MIND GAMES

Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois dismissed reports he had an agreement in place to sign with Madrid, saying the reports were just a ploy to destabilize the team.

The Belgium keeper is on loan from Chelsea, and has a contract with the London club until 2016. Reports emerged suggesting Courtois had agreed to join Madrid when his deal was up with the English club.

"Everyone knows this type of thing can destabilize the team," Courtois said. "I want to keep playing here and they want me to as well."

WAITING FOR NEYMAR

While Lionel Messi answered critics against Manchester City, Barcelona forward Neymar did not.

The Brazil striker was a fleeting presence against City on Wednesday, showing little pace or creativity in attack before eventually coming off for Alexis Sanchez.

Coach Gerardo Martino acknowledged that forwards Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez were not getting the playing time they deserve.

"When there are so many great players you are more likely to (be unfair) than not to be," Martino said. "These are decisions we take. Sometimes they come out well and sometimes badly."

Follow Paul Logothetis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP

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