Spanish leader Madrid faces tough test at Osasuna

JOSEPH WILSON Associated Press Published:

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- Real Madrid's campaign for its first Spanish league title in four seasons faces a tough test at Osasuna on Saturday, while second-place Barcelona hosts Athletic Bilbao in a preview of the Copa del Rey final.

After seeing its once commanding lead over Barcelona cut from 10 points to six, Madrid has since rediscovered its form with a 5-1 rout of Real Sociedad and a 3-0 win at Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia in the Champions League.

With nine games to play, Madrid begins its challenging final stretch with a visit to one of the league's quiet surprises.

Sixth-place Osasuna is undefeated in its last six matches and has only lost twice in 15 home games this season at the raucous Reyno de Navarra stadium, where Barcelona fell 3-2 just last month.

Osasuna's direct, physical style and Madrid's feared counterattack should make for an entertaining clash in Pamplona.

"We fully believe in our possibilities," Osasuna defender Miguel Flano said. "We know that we are going to face a rival that will play well and go out to win the three points that are important for its title chances.

"We are an intense team that fights for each and every ball and that is the only way that we can match up with their talent."

After slipping to consecutive 1-1 draws last week, Madrid imposed a gag rule on its players and staff that was widely criticized in the Spanish media.

Madrid coach Jose Mourinho and his players finally spoke to the press for the game at APOEL, and it appears they will do so again for the game at Osasuna.

"It was a decision taken together by the coaches and players," said Kaka, who came off the bench to spark Madrid's attack in Cyprus. "At that moment we decided it was better not to talk, but little by little things are returning to normal.

"I think this weekend we will speak in Pamplona. That is what we have decided for now."

Marcelo Bielsa's Bilbao team recently won plenty of plaudits when it knocked Manchester United out of the Europa League. But just when a top-four finish in Spain looked like a real possibility, Bilbao has lost three and drawn one to slide into 11th place.

Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente is struggling to return from a left leg injury and the entire team appears worn down by its high-tempo style.

To further complicate things for the Basques, they face a quick turnaround after playing at German side Schalke on Thursday night in the Europa League.

"At this stage of the season everyone wants to win to achieve their goals, but now we have to buckle down and give it our all," Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz said. "We have the extra motivation of knowing that we have played well until now, and that will give us the energy to continue forward because the effort needed will be maximum."

For Bilbao to have a chance, Iraizoz will have to stop Barcelona forward Lionel Messi. Both Messi and Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo have scored 35 times in league play this season. The Portugal forward holds the league record of 40 goals from last season.

Barcelona, which drew 0-0 at AC Milan on Wednesday in the Champions League, will also play Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final on May 25 in Madrid.

On Sunday, Valencia hosts Levante in a city derby that could be key in their fight for a top-four finish and a spot in next season's Champions League. Back-to-back losses have left third-place Valencia just three points ahead of fifth-place Levante.

Fourth-place Malaga is currently level on points with Valencia and can move ahead after playing Real Betis on Saturday.

Round 30 also features two matches with direct implication in the struggle to avoid the drop.

Bottom three Racing Santander, Sporting Gijon and Zaragoza all have 25 points. The revived Zaragoza goes for its third consecutive win at Sporting on Saturday, while Racing hosts Granada, which is clinging to safety just six points in front.

Also on Sunday, it's: Atletico Madrid vs. Getafe, Real Sociedad vs. Rayo Vallecano, and Villarreal vs. Espanyol.

Sevilla looks for its third consecutive victory at Mallorca on Monday.