La Liga Week 24 Preview: Battle for European places hots up

The intensity of the battle for European football is increasing exponentially as weeks go by. Top teams cannot afford to be inconsistent at this point in the season or else they risk dropping out of the coveted Champions League and Europa League spots. As two points separate fourth place from ninth, these sides will be anxious not to drop anymore points as there is always a host of clubs waiting to capitalise on any mistakes. Levante, Espanyol and Atletico Madrid all face difficult opponents this weekend and Malaga, Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao will all be lurking in the shadows and waiting to take advantage of any setbacks they may suffer.

Athletic Bilbao are looking to catapult themselves back into a European place as they meet ambitious Malaga at the San Mames on Sunday. Malaga, who sit in seventh place and are desperate to secure a Europa League spot this season, ran out 1-0 winners over Marcelo Bielsa’s men when the sides clashed in the fourth week of the season but have won just two matches since the turn of the year.

Manuel Pellegrini will be without right-back Jesus Gamez this weekend whilst Joaquin, an unused substitute against Mallorca last week, could make his first appearance of 2012 against the Leones.

Bilbao approach this game off the back of a 2-1 defeat against Lokomotiv Moscow in the Europa League on Thursday. The Basque side slipped to ninth after suffering only their third loss in 10 league matches at the hands of Real Betis last weekend and will be looking to rectify their form with a victory over Malaga.

Levante have managed to hold onto fourth place in La Liga, despite the fact that they haven’t won any of their last seven matches. The Granotas will be desperate to pick up points on Sunday to avoid being overtaken by Espanyol, with whom they are now level, but Juan Ignacio Martinez’s side face a Rayo Vallecano team who have won two on the bounce.

Vallecano themselves will be looking to cause an upset in the race for European football with a win over Levante, as the Madrid club sit 10th, three points behind sixth place.

Valencia could gain more ground on Barcelona as they meet the Spanish champions this weekend in search of revenge for their elimination from the Copa del Rey. Los Che travel to Camp Nou high in confidence after winning two consecutive matches following their defeat to the Catalonians. Unai Emery’s side are currently eight points behind the Blaugrana and a victory would see them pile some pressure on Pep Guardiola’s men.

The Blaugrana will be without Dani Alves and Javier Mascherano for Sunday night’s match as both players are suspended.

Espanyol and Atletico Madrid can hold onto their Europa League spots this weekend with victories over Getafe and Sporting Gijon, respectively. Madrid remain unbeaten under Diego Simeone and conceded their first goal in 648 minutes of football on Thursday night during their 3-1 win over Lazio. Espanyol will be desperate to recover from last week’s defeat to Real Zaragoza, their first defeat since early December.

The Periquitos are still lurking over the shoulder of Levante and will be hoping to occupy fourth place at the end of Saturday’s match but they face a difficult task in defeating a Getafe side which has lost just two matches at the Coliseum Alfonso P

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