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By ESPN Staff

Madrid wary of Hercules challenge

Real Madrid will look to turn the heat up on Primera Division pacesetters Barcelona ahead of what could prove an vital week in Los Blanco's season when they play host to struggling Hercules on Saturday.

With Barca not playing until Sunday, when they face a tricky trip to Sevilla, Real Madrid could provisionally cut the Catalan side's lead back to four points if they can defeat Hercules at the Bernabeu.

A Madrid victory would also be ideal preparation for Jose Mourinho's men for their next two games, which see them host Lyon in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie in midweek, before travelling to local rivals Atletico the following weekend.

"After the game against Hercules, a key moment arrives for us with very difficult games against Lyon and Atletico," said defender Real Raul Albiol.

However, while Madrid will be desperate to win those two matches, they are not underestimating the threat of Hercules, even though all signs point to a home win.

The capital club have won their last 23 competitive games in front of their own fans - including a 7-0 mauling of Malaga in their last outing - while third-bottom Hercules have only won once away all season.

That sole victory, though, came against Barca at the Nou Camp and they remain the only side to have beaten Pep Guardiola's outfit in La Liga this season.

Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas said: "Even though they are fighting to avoid relegation, we need to take notice of them because they beat Barcelona at home. Right now in La Liga we cannot afford to drop any points.''

While Madrid attempt to get into the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in seven years next week, Barca already have their place in the last eight secured after seeing off Arsenal.

Now Barcelona, the defending Spanish champions, will hope to move another step closer to a potential treble when they travel to a Sevilla side who are chasing a European berth.

Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo, whose side are two points off the top six, said: "Right now winning is what matters. We want to be higher and for that we need wins.

"In the end those at the top are those who play well and we have to get into the Europa League places before thinking about the Champions League.''

In third place, a massive 16 points above Sevilla and four points in front of fourth-placed Villarreal, are Valencia, who will be looking to bounce back from their Champions League exit at the hands of Schalke when they take on Real Zaragoza this weekend.

Stuttering Villarreal, who have picked up just five points from a possible 18 in recent weeks, are at home to Sporting Gijon, a match that is sandwiched in between their two Europa League clashes with Bayer Leverkusen.

Another high-flying side desperately looking for an improvement are sixth-placed Espanyol, who play host to Deportivo La Coruna this weekend having lost six of their last seven games.

At the foot of the table, bottom club Malaga go to Real Sociedad needing to close a four-point gap to Zaragoza and safety, while second-bottom Almeria host Atletico Madrid.

Also, upwardly-mobile Levante meet Real Mallorca and Racing Santander go to Osasuna, while on Monday night Getafe meet fifth-placed Athletic Bilbao.

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