Marcelino: Stopping Real counter-attacks key

Brief news from La Liga ahead of this weekend's matches, the last before the winter break:

The key to beating Real Madrid is preventing them from unleashing their devastating counter-attacks, according to Sevilla coach Marcelino, whose side host Real at the Sanchez Pizjuan on Saturday.

"If they win the ball, we have to try in any way we can to stop them coming at us with the same number of attackers as our defenders or with numerical superiority," Marcelino was quoted as saying in Friday's edition of As sports daily.

"And if they have the ball we have to defend very solidly," he added.

A win in Seville would lift Real back above Barcelona to the top and restore the three-point lead their rivals wiped out last weekend when Barca triumphed 3-1 in the opening Clasico of the campaign at Real's Bernabeu stadium.

Champions Barca, who are not in La Liga action this weekend while they compete at the Club World Cup in Japan, are still reeling from the broken leg David Villa sustained in Thursday's semi-final against Qatar's Al Sadd.

Forward Pedro said the injury, which the club announced would probably sideline the Spain striker for up to five months, would be used by the players as extra motivation as Villa had desperately wanted to win the cup for the first time.

"Villa is optimistic, cheerful, and hoping to be fit and able to play in the [Champions League] final in Munich and the European Championships," Pedro told Barca's website.

Atletico Madrid coach Gregorio Manzano is one of several La Liga coaches under pressure after his side performed erratically during the first half of the season. They lie 10th with 19 points from 15 games ahead of Sunday's match at home to Real Betis.

Atletico's form in the Europa League has been more consistent, although home fans at the Calderon chanted slogans against Manzano and the club's board during Thursday's 3-1 win at home to Ligue 1 side Stade Rennes.

Manzano told a post-match news conference he was expecting a negative atmosphere after Tuesday's 2-1 King's Cup defeat at third-tier Albacete.

"We came out to do what we had to do," he said. "I have the satisfaction of getting through a Europa League qualifier and playing a very good group phase."

Betis secured their first victory in 11 matches with a dramatic 2-1 comeback win at home to third-placed Valencia last weekend and coach Pepe Mel, who has received backing from the club president despite the team's woeful run, wants more of the same against Atletico.

"I am asking my players to come out and play the same way they did against Valencia, that's the reference point," Mel told a news conference on Friday. "If we don't come out with the necessary aggression we will suffer."

Third-placed Valencia slipped seven points behind Barca and Real thanks to the defeat at Betis and face a tough game at home to big-spending Malaga, who are sixth, on Sunday.

Qatar-owned Malaga were one of the biggest spenders in the close-season and Valencia defender Jordi Alba said he and his team-mates needed to raise their game after losing their last three matches in all competitions.

"It's going to be a close game because they are up there in the table with us," said Alba. "It's going to be very tough."


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