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Leaders Madrid face Athletic in final run towards Liga title

Leaders Madrid face Athletic in final run towards Liga title

Sports

Madrid have a firm grip on the title race after shaking free of Catalan minnows Girona

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Barcelona (AFP) – La Liga leaders Real Madrid host Athletic Bilbao on Sunday as the Spanish top flight ramps up for an exciting end to the season.

Madrid have a firm grip on the title race after shaking free of Catalan minnows Girona before the international break, but Ernesto Valverde's high-flying Athletic will be tricky opposition at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The Basque side, in the Copa del Rey final, are fighting to secure a top four finish and a return to Champions League football next season.

Athletic are fourth, a point clear of Diego Simeone's Atletico in fifth, who face Villarreal on Monday.

Madrid have a comfortable eight-point lead on champions Barcelona with nine matches remaining and if they can beat Athletic will be confident of holding on to claim a third title in five seasons.

The Catalans have found form in recent weeks after coach Xavi Hernandez said he would walk away at the end of the season, and face Las Palmas at home on Saturday.

Barcelona are unbeaten in 10 matches and thumped Atletico 3-0 at the Metropolitano stadium in their last outing, showing Madrid they would not relinquish their crown without a fight.

"All the players are giving their best and are at their best level," warned Xavi before the international break. "Now we're at our best moment of the season, it's a moment to dream."

He added: "An eight point advantage is a lot (but) we have a direct clash against them and we will try to do it." Real Madrid are close to recovering defender Eder Militao from injury although he is unlikely to face Athletic.

Top goalscorer Jude Bellingham is set to return to the side after a two-match suspension, although he and Fede Valverde returned from international duty with minor fitness concerns.

Despite Madrid's frequent injury problems this season, Ancelotti was positive about the team's chances of silverware this season.

"I am quite optimistic and we are better than ever," said the Italian, before Madrid beat Osasuna in their previous match. "We have to be excited for the games to come, we have to be happy, satisfied and hopeful."

Seven points clear of Atletico, Girona should be able to hold on to a top four spot, although their form has dipped badly with four defeats in their last six matches.

"Not reaching the Champions League would be a big blow," admitted coach Michel Sanchez. Girona host Real Betis, seventh, on Sunday before visiting Atletico Madrid.

Player to watch: Lamine Yamal

The Barcelona winger continues to shine for his club and country, playing a key role for Spain against Brazil on Tuesday in an entertaining draw. Barca coach Xavi Hernandez is torn between trying not to burn out the 16-year-old and allowing him free reign to cause havoc down the right wing, with Las Palmas next visiting the Catalan capital on Saturday.

Key stats

3 - Real Betis striker Chimy Avila has been sent off more than any other player this season, twice with Osasuna

15 - Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Unai Simon has kept the most clean sheets

72 - percentage of tackles won by Barcelona defender Pau Cubarsi, who recently made his Spain debut at 17

Fixtures

Friday

Cadiz v Granada (2000)

Saturday

Getafe v Sevilla (1300), Almeria v Osasuna (1515), Valencia v Mallorca (1730), Barcelona v Las Palmas (2000)

Sunday

Celta Vigo v Rayo Vallecano (1200), Girona v Real Betis (1415), Alaves v Real Sociedad (1630), Real Madrid v Athletic Bilbao (1900)

Monday

Villarreal v Atletico Madrid (1900)