Focus falls on also-rans in La Liga title race
MADRID, Feb 14 (Reuters) - With the Primera Liga title race a straight battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona, the scrap for the two Champions League qualification places and two UEFA Cup berths offers the most intriguing match-ups this weekend.
Three points separate third from fifth in the standings - Villarreal (42), Atletico Madrid (41) and Espanyol (39) - while sixth-placed Racing Santander (34) have only a one-point advantage over Sevilla, Almeria and Valencia.
Third-placed Villarreal, who are six short of Barca and 14 adrift of leaders Real, are at home to a Racing side punching above their weight this season.
Marcelinos Racing are a well-organised, hard-working outfit constructed upon a solid defence. They have made the Kings Cup semi-finals for the first time but stumbled in the league of late and have not won in four games.
Villarreal display the inconsistency that characterises so many sides in the league and have only one victory from their last three.
Atletico are waiting in the wings to make the most of dropped points when they host Athletic Bilbao on Sunday after getting back to winning ways in Santander last weekend.
Below them, fifth-placed Espanyol host a resurgent Sevilla in a re-run of last year's UEFA Cup final, on Saturday.
Sliding Espanyol have lost four of their last five matches whereas Sevilla looked back to their best as they battled Barca to a 1-1 draw last weekend.
Another side who look to be turning the corner are Valencia.
Ronald Koeman's side have won back-to-back league games for the first time since November, are in the Kings Cup semi-finals, and travel to face Getafe on Sunday.
Michael Laudrup's team, along with Barca, are the only clubs left in the Primera Liga competing on three fronts.
At the top, Real are in confident mood after their 7-0 thrashing of Valladolid and visit struggling Real Betis with a comfortable eight-point cushion over their arch-rivals.
They have a doubt over top scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy and have lost forward Robinho to injury but have more than enough firepower in reserve to trouble Betis, who are only kept out of the relegation places by goal difference.
Barcelona travel to face 10th-placed Real Zaragoza in need of a radical improvement in their away form.
They have only won three games on their travels and in Zaragoza face a strike-partnership of Argentine Gabriel Milito and Brazilian Ricardo Oliveira who have 23 goals between them.
Barca have an injury doubt over Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o.