Guardiola denies deliberate Pique card

Brief news from La Liga ahead of this weekend's matches:

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola has denied centre-back Gerard Pique provoked a fifth yellow card in Tuesday's 4-0 home win over Rayo Vallecano so he would serve a one-match ban against Levante on Saturday and be free to play in next week's 'Clasico' at leaders Real Madrid.

Madrid-based media had speculated the Spanish football federation (RFEF) might ban him for two games as he appeared to invite the card by taking too long over a free kick, but the RFEF gave him a standard one-match ban on Friday.

"We don't practice these things in training," Guardiola said at a news conference. "If we had prepared it beforehand we would not have done it like that."

Guardiola has a full squad available for Saturday's game against fourth-placed Levante, with the exception of Pique and full-back Adriano, who has a thigh strain.

The champions are in second place on 31 points from 14 matches, three behind Real Madrid, who have 34 from 13.

Real forward Cristiano Ronaldo returned to training on Thursday after missing a couple of sessions with a sprained ankle sustained in the win over Atletico Madrid last weekend.

Coach Jose Mourinho will be without suspended midfielder Xabi Alonso at Sporting Gijon. Turkey international Nuri Sahin is his likely replacement.

Real are bidding for a 10th straight La Liga win and their 14th in all competitions.

Real's France striker Karim Benzema said the team are ready for the challenge of playing Barca, who are seeking a club record-equalling fourth straight La Liga title.

"We don't want to think too much about Barcelona or talk about them because we know they are one of the best teams in the world," Benzema told Friday's As sports daily.

"But I'll tell you one thing: we are ready for the challenge against them."

Valencia midfielder Tino Costa has said the players' minds are partly on Tuesday's Champions League Group E decider at Chelsea, ahead of hosting Espanyol on Saturday.

"Whoever says they are not thinking about Chelsea is lying because we all want to win this match as it will be one of the most important many of us have played," Costa told Friday's As.

"But our daily bread is La Liga and if anyone thinks differently they are mistaken," he added. Valencia are four points behind Barca in third with a game in hand.

Former Valencia and Argentina player Mario Kempes will be at the Mestalla for Saturday's game and the club is considering a fan groups' proposal that his name should be chanted in the 10th minute at every game.

Known as the 'matador', Kempes wore the number 10 shirt and scored 108 league goals for the club in 170 appearances in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Atletico Madrid pair Arda Turan and Adriano missed Thursday's training session ahead of Sunday's match at home to city rivals Rayo Vallecano, the club said on their website.

Turkey midfielder Turan complained of sore muscles after Wednesday's 1-0 Europa League win at Celtic, in which he netted the only goal, while Adriano has acute gastroenteritis.


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