Madrid derby between Real and Atletico Madrid to take center stage

 The Madrid derby between Real and Atletico Madrid will take center stage in the 23rd round of matches in La Liga, as the battle to qualify for Europe and to avoid relegation intensifies.

Real Madrid come into the game after a 5-2 win away to Liverpool at Anfield, although Carlo Ancelotti has lost defender David Alaba and striker Rodrygo to muscle problems picked up on Tuesday night.

Thus, Nacho Fernandez will play on the left side of the Real Madrid defense, while Toni Kroos returns to midfield, allowing Fede Velverde to move into a more advanced position. With Barca eight points clear, Real Madrid have no margin for error.

Atletico are likely to be without the injured Rodrigo de Paul in central midfield, but have Antoine Griezmann in excellent form, as he showed in last weekend’s narrow win at home to Athletic Bilbao.

The round of matches kicks off on Friday night, with fifth-placed Real Betis traveling to Elche. The bottom side, who has just nine points all season, saw their already slim hopes of avoiding relegation suffer a big setback when they lost to Espanyol last week, and another defeat would just about condemn them to the second division next season.

That win in Elche allowed Espanyol to breathe a little bit easier, but Diego Martinez’s side still has work to do. Espanyol will still be without top scorer Joselu when they welcome Mallorca, whose defensive record of just 20 goals conceded has carried them up to eighth and given them a chance of qualifying for Europe.

Rayo Vallecano are currently in a position that would see them play in Europe next season, but Andoni Iraola’s side has a difficult visit to Cadiz, who may be third from bottom, but impressed in the Camp Nou last weekend. Cadiz have won two and drawn two of the four games they have played at home since the FIFA World Cup and are a different proposition at home.

Saturday ends with high drama as Valencia entertain Real Sociedad, desperately needing to end a run of one draw and six defeats that has seen them drop to second bottom.

New coach Ruben Baraja couldn’t provide a reaction in Monday’s 1-0 defeat in Getafe and to make matters worse, captain Jose Luis Gaya will be out of action for a month with a twisted ankle.

Athletic Bilbao kick off Sunday with a home game against Girona that Ernesto Valverde’s side has to win to keep the pressure on the top six, although Girona will be confident after having scored six goals against Almeria last weekend.

Celta Vigo and Valladolid will test their recent improvements when they meet in Balaidos, although Celta are without suspended midfielder Renato Tapia.

Three straight defeats, including a 6-2 thrashing in Girona, have seen Almeria drop to fourth from bottom, and another bad defeat could spell the end for coach Rubi.

If Cadiz take a point off Rayo, Almeria will kick off their match against Barca in the bottom three, and Barca will have Gavi back after missing Thursday’s visit to play Manchester United through suspension.

Sevilla entertain Osasuna on Sunday night, just a month after Osasuna knocked Sevilla out of the Copa del Rey, and the visitors could rest players ahead of next week’s semifinal against Bilbao.

The round of games ends on Monday when Villarreal aim to end a run of four consecutive defeats when they take on struggling Getafe. ■

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