BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spanish league leader Atletico Madrid can see the finish line, but its difficult run-in begins when it travels to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.
In the most exciting season finale in years, Atletico leads Barcelona by one point and Real Madrid by three with eight games to go. Barcelona visits Espanyol, while Madrid hosts a resurgent Rayo Vallecano looking to bounce back from its first consecutive losses in league play since 2009.
Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino may rotate his starting lineup with Atletico visiting Camp Nou on Tuesday in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal.
ASSAULTING SAN MAMES
Atletico may be in the driver's seat but it has the toughest schedule of all the three contenders with five away matches in the eight remaining rounds. After visiting fourth-place Bilbao, it travels to Getafe, Valencia, and Levante before ending the season at Barcelona. Atletico has already won at Bilbao this season in the Copa del Rey, becoming the first visitor to emerge victorious from the new San Mames Stadium. "Recently, the newspapers have constantly been talking about there being nine, eight, seven games left, who plays who - but I don't look at that because it gets me nervous," Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. "If we think about those things, we won't get anywhere. We must only think of each game as being a final. It's the only way."
DOOR OPEN FOR VALDES: Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu says the club will offer a new contract to injured goalkeeper Victor Valdes if he changes his mind and decides to stay at his boyhood club. Valdes has said he would leave when his contract expires this summer. But that was before he tore a ligament in his right knee during Wednesday's win over Celta Vigo. He is to undergo an operation on Monday that will likely sideline him for several months, ruling him out for the remainder of the season and the World Cup. "(Valdes) is going through a tough moment and the club will do all it can for him," Bartomeu said. "We have no indication that he has signed a contract with another team. We would be thrilled for him to stay."
IN PINTO'S HANDS: Valdes' injury leaves Barcelona's goal in the hands of veteran backup Jose Pinto. The 38-year-old Pinto has been with the club since 2008 and has been its starter in the Copa del Rey, a trophy he won in 2009 and 2012. But he has never been under the pressure he will face now, having to anchor the team as it fights to defend its league crown while playing in the Champions League and against Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. Pinto filled in for Valdes earlier this season, and Barcelona won six and lost two. Through his career at Barcelona, Pinto has played in 79 matches and conceded 62 goals.
GOALKEEPER DEBATE: Madrid's losses to Barcelona and at Sevilla this week have reopened the debate over who should play goalkeeper for Carlo Ancelotti's side. League starter Diego Lopez was beaten twice by Sevilla striker Carlos Bacca and allowed four goals against Barcelona, three coming from Lionel Messi. Ancelotti, however, said Lopez would start against Rayo, resisting media pressure to choose Iker Casillas. The manager shifted the blame to his entire team and its lack of intensity in defense. "We have conceded six goals and we need to avoid these types of errors because we pay dearly for them," Ancelotti said. "We need to be more focused." Once in the relegation zone, Rayo turned around and won four of its last five matches to soar into 12th place despite having the worst defense in the league with 63 goals allowed.
THREE GUNSLINGERS: While the title races tightens, the duel to finish as the league's leading scorer is also heating up with Messi quickly gaining on the front-runners. Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo tops the league with 27 goals through 30 rounds. Atletico's Diego Costa is next with 24, and Messi has 22 after scoring seven times in his last three games.