The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Barcelona visits Getafe without Messi or Neymar, Atletico aims to keep rolling
BARCELONA, Spain - The Spanish league plays the 17th round of matches before taking a two-week break for the winter holidays.
Barcelona and Atletico Madrid maintain their share of the league lead, with Real Madrid trailing by three points.
Here are five things to know about this weekend's matches:
BLUNTED BARCELONA: Barcelona travels to Getafe on Sunday with a depleted squad missing several key players. Lionel Messi is healing his hurt hamstring in Argentina, Neymar is serving a one-game suspension and has been given permission to start his holidays early, and goalkeeper Victor Valdes is still sidelined. Barcelona hopes to have all three back in January, but it also wants to close out 2013 with a win to make sure it at least keeps its share of the lead.
Neymar scored six goals in his last three appearances to lead Barcelona to a trio of victories. Now the scoring duties will likely fall to Pedro Rodriguez and little-used forward Cristian Tello. "(Getafe) always creates problems for us at its stadium and this Sunday will be a tough game," said Tello, who has played well since returning from a monthlong hiatus due to an injured right ankle. Barcelona may get Dani Alves back from a right leg injury. The Brazil defender trained with the team this week.
WEATHER VANE: Few would think that the road to winning the Spanish league passed through humble Getafe. But for Barcelona, it appears Alfonso Perez Coliseum is critical to the title ever since Getafe earned promotion to Spain's topflight. Barcelona has been crowned league champion in the six seasons it has won at Getafe, and it has come up short in the other three seasons it drew or lost there. Getafe enters the match in eighth place and has lost only twice in eight home matches this season. The teams will play twice more in the Copa del Rey round of 16 in January. Getafe forward Angel Lafita thinks his team has a better chance to get a good result this weekend. "One game is very different. Over 180 minutes, normally the most consistent team wins," Lafita said. "In that sense Barcelona is very strong. That's why it's possible that we can pull something out in the league."
ATLETICO'S CHANCE: Atletico Madrid hosts Levante on Saturday knowing that a win will send it to bed at the top of the table. A ninth victory in as many home games would also put more pressure on Barcelona come Sunday. Atletico has outscored its last five visitors in league play 17-0 at its Vicente Calderon Stadium, and Diego Costa will be looking to move ahead of Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo with both tied on a league-leading 17 goals each. Levante is winless in its last three away games and will be without injured striker Baba Diawara.
WOUNDED VALENCIA: Madrid visits Valencia on Sunday hoping to take advantage of the team's turmoil after the firing of coach Miroslav Djukic this week. Valencia barely edged third-division Nastic Tarragona in the Copa del Rey on Thursday to advance 1-0 on aggregate, needing goalkeeper Vicente Guaita to make a diving save in stoppage time to avoid an ignominious ousting by the minnow. Valencia's youth squad coach, Nico Estevez, appears set to direct the team for a second straight game while the club seeks a permanent replacement for Djukic. "The team is in a difficult situation," said Estevez. "It's an awkward moment, but the players are trying their hardest and showing a good attitude."
MUNIAIN'S MOMENT: Athletic Bilbao forward Iker Muniain is blossoming into the Basque side's most potent weapon. Muniain turned 21 years old on Thursday, and he celebrated by scoring two goals and setting up another to lead a 4-0 rout of Celta Vigo and send Bilbao through to the next round of the Copa del Rey. That gives Muniain four goals in his last five games, including the winner in Bilbao's 1-0 victory over Barcelona this month. Bilbao hosts lowly Rayo Vallecano on Sunday. Ernesto Valverde's side hasn't lost in nine games in all competitions at its new San Mames Stadium, and with the way his team is playing over the last three months another win looks likely.
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