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5 things to know about the Spanish league as Barca, Atletico, Madrid continue title chase

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MADRID - The three-way chase for the Spanish league title continues with some tricky opponents for co-leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, and closest chaser Real Madrid.

Barcelona welcomes mid-table Valencia while Atletico Madrid is also home to sixth-place Real Sociedad. Madrid has the toughest task of the three with a trip to the new San Mames Stadium to face fourth-place Athletic Bilbao.

Barcelona and Atletico lead on 54 points from 21 games, while Madrid trails the pair by a single point.

Here are five things to look for this weekend:

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LEAGUE FIRST

Atletico became the first team to win at Athletic Bilbao's new stadium in the Copa del Rey this week, and Madrid would like to follow up that result by handing the Basques their first league defeat at home.

Madrid hopes to have Gareth Bale and Raphael Varane ready for Sunday's matchup, which marks Sergio Ramos' 10-year anniversary in the league.

The Real Madrid defender has played 545 times for Madrid and earned 115 caps for Spain by the age of 27.

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DWINDLING BARCA SUPPORT

Barcelona will be hoping fans show up for Saturday's match against Valencia after just over 25,000 spectators — one quarter of the Camp Nou's capacity — showed up for Wednesday's 5-1 domestic cup win over Levante.

Lionel Messi did not come off the bench, so expect him to play on Saturday as the team tries to stay focused despite off-field issues.

President Sandro Rosell resigned after a criminal investigation into his signing of Neymar was launched, with Brazilian prosecutors also investigating the transfer. Messi is expected to get a pay rise, while the club has also failed to see club members approve a new stadium project.

Despite all of the distractions, Barcelona doesn't seem to miss a beat on the field as it is unbeaten in 13 matches with 11 victories.

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TRANSITIONAL VALENCIA

Valencia defender Jeremy Mathieu summed up the club's dismal season best when he described it as a "transitional" one.

The Mediterranean coastal club is 17 points adrift of the Champions League places in 10th and is desperate to find a buyer for the club with hundreds of millions of euros in debt hanging over it.

Valencia said on Thursday it was set to sign former Barcelona midfielder Seydo Keita of Mali, while forward Eduardo Vargas is also reported to be joining from Napoli.

The club's bid to shake up its campaign has seen it loan out forwards Dorlan Pabon, Andres Guardado, and Helder Postiga, while midfielder Sergio Canales is also close to making an exit.

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TOUGH ATLETICO

Atletico will go into Sunday's game at the Vicente Calderon without fullback Filipe Luis because of a right hamstring injury, while teenage midfielder Oliver Torres will also not play.

Atletico's tremendous season has been spared serious injuries, but the grind of playing in three competitions was expected to catch up with the team eventually.

Still, the players aren't looking for excuses.

"We are a team of men," midfielder Raul Garcia said. "We're conscious of what we're playing for, what's at stake."

Striker Diego Costa at last found the net for the first time since Dec. 21 by scoring in Wednesday's 2-1 victory at Bilbao that put the defending champions into the Copa del Rey semifinals.

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TRANSFER TALK

With just two days left in the transfer window, Spanish clubs were looking for last-minute deals to boost their chances of avoiding relegation.

Valencia was the biggest mover on Thursday with its announcement of having signed Keita, but last-place Real Betis was also vying to shake itself out of its season-long slumber.

Betis signed 23-year-old Alfred N'Diaye of Senegal and former Madrid goalie Antonio Adan, while Malaga acquired Nordim Amrabat from Galatasaray.

Valladolid, which is in the last demotion spot, pulled out of a deal to sign former Liverpool and Juventus player Mohamed Sissoko after several days of medical examinations on his knee offered little reassurance.

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Follow Paul Logothetis on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP

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