The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
5 things to know about the Spanish league as Atletico looks to rebound from Madrid loss
MADRID - Atletico Madrid begins life alone atop the Spanish league standings for the first time since 1996 this weekend, with a visit to relegation-threatened Almeria perhaps the necessary elixir following Wednesday's 3-0 Copa del Rey humbling by crosstown rival Real Madrid.
Madrid welcomes Villarreal without Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona has a tough visit to Sevilla on hand with both trailing Atletico by three points.
Here are five things to know about the Spanish league this weekend:
Diego Costa's temper got the best of the Atletico striker in the domestic cup defeat at Madrid, with a yellow card leaving him out of the semifinal return leg. That may bode better for Atletico's league push, though.
Costa will certainly start Saturday at Almeria, with fellow striker David Villa injured, but will get a rest in midweek with Champions League play also on the horizon.
Atletico will need to rebound from the deflating loss, which ended a 23-game unbeaten run and was only its second defeat of the season.
Barcelona's winning, but it's not pretty.
Coupled with Lionel Messi's subdued return and the off-field antics surrounding Neymar's contract, it's no surprise that supporters of the Catalan club are staying away from the Camp Nou this season.
Only 38,505 spectators attended the 2-0 Copa del Rey victory over Real Sociedad, mirroring a season-long drop-off in attendance at the 100,000-capacity stadium, which has been particularly sharp in recent weeks.
Average attendance is 64,600 this season — down 6,000 — but only 48,450 on average have attended the most recent five games.
"If I was a Barca supporter and I had to work the next day with the game kicking off at 10 p.m. at night, I wouldn't come either," coach Gerardo Martino said.
Defender Dani Alves was less forgiving.
"Those who don't come to the stadium are less loyal," Alves said.
RONALDO OUT, BALE IN?
Cristiano Ronaldo begins the first of a three-game league ban when Madrid faces Villarreal on Saturday, and Gareth Bale is expected to fill his void after being sidelined for two games.
Ronaldo's antics after earning a red card at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday led to the suspension, so coach Carlo Ancelotti kept Bale out against Atletico to stay fresh for Villarreal.
Bale has had a rocky start to his Madrid career since his world record transfer from Tottenham, but has still managed to score 10 goals in 22 appearances, while providing seven assists.
Madrid is unbeaten in 22 matches overall.
While Messi looks like he's on autopilot with the World Cup approaching, Spain will be preoccupied with the state of Andres Iniesta of late.
The Barcelona midfielder has started only 14 of 22 league games this season, spending more time coming off and returning to the bench early.
Martino said Iniesta was perhaps still feeling a knock he picked up against Atletico last month and that he expected Messi to come alive soon.
"I'm not worried that Messi is not scoring goals. He had three clear opportunities (against Sociedad) and he'll soon score again," Martino said.
Sevilla will be itching for a result with the Andalucians winless in four games.
One player who has taken advantage of Bale's inactivity has been Madrid forward Jese Rodriguez.
The 20-year-old striker has scored seven goals this season, including in three straight games, and is quickly turning into a reference point in Madrid's attack.
"Everyone knows Jese is very important for us. He's scoring goals in important games," Ancelotti said.
The Madrid youth product believes his emerging role will only help the world's most expensive team.
"I'm just happy that Ancelotti is giving me opportunities and I want to keep on like this," Jese said. "It's healthy competition and it's good for the team."
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