- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

MADRID (AP) - Barcelona returns its focus to the race in the Spanish league with its top players rested after the reserves advanced the team to the Copa del Rey final and secured the club record of 29 consecutive games without a loss.

The reserves drew at Valencia 1-1 in the second leg of the Copa semifinals on Wednesday to achieve the milestones. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar were among those rested who will return to action when Celta Vigo visits on Sunday, to try to maintain their league lead over Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid.

“We can enjoy what we achieved for about 10 minutes and then we are thinking about La Liga again,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said. “We have to leave the Copa aside for now.”

Barcelona has won five games in a row in the league, and hasn’t lost since October, when the unbeaten streak began. It has a game in hand and three points more than Atletico Madrid and four more than Real Madrid.

“We have to keep this going,” said Ivan Rakitic, the only Barcelona veteran who played in Valencia.

Here are other things to watch in the Spanish league this weekend:


HOME ADVANTAGE: Barcelona won its last seven home games and outscored opponents 30-3. In the last four home games, the club has 18 goals and conceded only two.

The last setback at the Camp Nou was a 2-2 draw against Deportivo La Coruna in December.

Celta Vigo has lost three consecutive away games in the league, but it shocked Barcelona 4-1 at home in the fifth round.

Another win for Barcelona on Sunday will leave the club in position to open a six-point lead next week, when it plays at Sporting Gijon in a game postponed from December because of the team’s participation in the Club World Cup in Japan.

Barcelona would have 14 rounds left to defend the lead, and win a second straight league title.

BETTING ON BENZEMA: Real Madrid hosts Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, with Karim Benzema looking to keep alive his streak of scoring at least one goal per game this year.

The striker has eight goals in six games. It is the first time he has scored in more than five consecutive games for Real Madrid.

This season, Benzema has 23 goals in 22 games. His 19 in the league are one less than leading scorer Suarez.

Benzema is up to 10th all-time in Madrid’s history, with 156 goals.

Real Madrid has outscored opponents 16-1 in coach Zinedine Zidane’s first three games at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. Left back Marcelo won’t be available on Saturday because of a shoulder injury.

BACK TO DEFENSE: Atletico Madrid’s struggling defense will be bolstered against Getafe on Sunday by the return from suspensions of Filipe Luis, Diego Godin, and Juanfran.

Atletico had been thriving in the league and the Copa del Rey thanks to its solid defending, but it collapsed in recent games. Atletico conceded six goals in its last three games. In the previous eight matches, opponents scored only once.

FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL: One of the most important games pits Gary Neville’s Valencia against Espanyol on Saturday.

Valencia is winless in 12 league games, nine under Neville, and Espanyol hasn’t won in seven consecutive rounds. Espanyol is one point from the relegation zone, Valencia four.

Only about 16,000 turned up at Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium midweek for the second-leg semi against Barcelona, when the team needed to reverse a seven-goal deficit from the first leg, and Neville has implored the fans to back them this weekend.

“Now we need our fans more than ever,” he said. “This game is crucial for us.”


Tales Azzoni on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tazzoni

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