MADRID - The first of up to four clashes
with arch-rivals Barcelona is casting a long shadow over Real
Madrid's trip to Athletic Bilbao in La Liga on Saturday.
Jose Mourinho's men are midway through their Champions
League quarter-final with Tottenham Hotspur, though they travel
to London on Wednesday with a handsome 4-0 advantage, and they
welcome the La Liga leaders to the Bernabeu next Saturday.
Four days later the two teams meet again in the King's Cup
final, and the likelihood of a Champions League semi-final clash
between the Spanish giants drew closer when Pep Guardiola's side
routed Shakhtar Donetsk 5-1 in the first leg.
If both teams progress, they would meet four times in 18
Keeping his players fresh and injury-free for those matches
while trying to keep alive their fading league title hopes will
be Mourinho's priority in Bilbao.
Real trail Barca by eight points with eight matches left and
have a tricky assignment at San Mames, traditionally one of the
most hostile stadiums for them to travel to in Spain.
They have only beaten the Lions four times in their last 11
league visits and their fifth-placed hosts are eager to secure a
place in European competition for next year.
Mourinho rushed Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo back from
injuries against Spurs on Tuesday, and gave Kaka and Gonzalo
Higuain run-outs after lengthy layoffs. Striker Karim Benzema
missed out with a leg muscle strain but could return.
"It's for moments like these that they have spent so much
money on their squad," Bilbao coach Joaquin Caparros, who guided
his side to a 1-0 win in the same fixture last season, told
sports daily Marca.
"Now is the time for squads... and Madrid have a magnificent
one. I'm sure they will put out a starting XI full of
"History shows that until it is mathematically impossible
Madrid will not give up the league as lost."
Barca's push towards a third consecutive La Liga crown was
helped by Real's shock home defeat by lowly Sporting Gijon last
weekend, and that should serve as a reminder when they host
basement side Almeria on Saturday.
The struggling south-coast club sacked Jose Luis Oltra on
Tuesday and appointed Roberto Olabe as their third coach this
season in a last-ditch attempt to stave off relegation.
Almeria, who have never even scored at the Nou Camp in the
league, have one win from their last eight outings and are four
points from safety.
One ray of hope for them, however, is that Barca goalkeeper
Victor Valdes is suspended while reserve Jose Manuel Pinto
pulled out of the Shakhtar game with a muscle strain. Youth-team
player Ruben Mino could be called in as cover.
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