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La Liga Preview: Barca out to close in on Atleti

Gerardo Martino afforded his players a day off on Monday and they visit Villarreal on Sunday having not played in midweek for the first time since mid-March.

Atletico and Real, by contrast, were involved in exhausting UEFA Champions League semi-final first legs. Carlo Ancelotti's side host fourth-bottom Osasuna on Saturday and Diego Simeone’s team visit Valencia the following day.

It has certainly been a positive week in Catalunya. They responded to three straight defeats by beating Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, took a step closer to extending Lionel Messi's contract, and had a transfer ban lifted by FIFA.

Encouragingly, Barca hold a nine-match unbeaten run against Villarreal, while Messi has scored six goals in his last four starts against them.

Villarreal made a superb start to their first term back in the top flight, but Marcelino’s men have won just three of their last 12 games to drop to seventh.

Atletico, four points clear of Barca, must overcome an examining hurdle to achieve a ninth successive La Liga victory, even though their opponents were involved in UEFA Europa League action on Thursday.

Valencia have lost just one of their last 12 home games in all competitions, while Atletico have not won a league game at the Mestalla in over 11 years.

Ancelotti's Real, six points off the pace but with a game in hand on the top two, face an Osasuna outfit unbeaten in four matches – just three days before a decisive trip to face Bayern Munich.

The Italian claimed Cristiano Ronaldo was "only 50 percent fit" in Real's 1-0 win over Bayern on Wednesday, but the Portuguese has since declared himself in "perfect condition".

Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla square off in their two-team tussle for fourth place.

Sevilla, three points behind their hosts, have won three straight league games largely thanks to five goals from Kevin Gameiro, but Bilbao have an in-form forward of their own in 33-year-old Aritz Aduriz.

Elche, unbeaten in eight home games and having kept clean sheets in the last seven of those, will strive to stride towards survival against out-of-sorts Levante on Friday. Two in-form goalkeepers could be central to the outcome: Elche’s Manu, who will be up against his former club, and Keylor Navas, La Liga's player of the month for March.

The following day third-bottom Getafe and Granada, five points above safety, host two sides who have very little to play for in Malaga and Rayo Vallecano.

Meantime Real Betis will be relegated if they fail to win at home to sixth-placed Real Sociedad.

On Sunday, second-bottom Almeria visit ninth-placed Espanyol while Valladolid travel to Celta Vigo in Monday's fixture.