MADRID (AP) – Barcelona faces a tricky match against a rejuvenated Atletico Madrid on Sunday when it can ill afford to drop any more points with Real Madrid holding a 10-point lead in the league standings.
Atletico hasn't lost in seven league matches since Diego Simeone took as coach to start the new year, and the Vicente Calderon Stadium has not been friendly to Barcelona of late. The three-time defending champions have lost in three of their last four visits.
Madrid plays at Rayo Vallecano earlier Sunday, and the league leaders are without forwards Karim Benzema and Angel di Maria, who recently picked up injuries.
Benzema will likely miss two weeks with a right leg muscle injury, while Di Maria aggravated a right leg muscle problem that had sidelined him in 2012 until he returned Sunday to score but hurt himself again.
Madrid has won 18 of its last 19 league matches, including eight straight on the road. Rayo, which has won three straight and is in eighth place, has offered discounted tickets to its unemployed fans to help fill the Vallecano Stadium.
Barcelona is coming off a spectacular 5-1 victory over Valencia, in which Lionel Messi scored four times to move to within one of Cristiano Ronaldo's league-leading goal tally of 28. Messi swiftly dismissed talk of a drop in form as the Argentina forward passed the 40-goal mark for the third straight season.
While Messi looked his Ballon d'Or best, Andres Iniesta is slowly returning to form after being sidelined by injury while Xavi Hernandez made a late cameo as coach Pep Guardiola has been reluctant to start the midfielder because he has been bothered by an Achilles problem much of the season.
With a fourth straight league title looking increasingly difficult, Barcelona's players have come out in support of Guardiola, who has yet to commit to another season in charge.
''The players would feel guilty if Pep doesn't renew,'' Barcelona fullback Daniel Alves said. ''Thanks to him we've won so many things. He used to have a lot of hair but that's not the case any more thanks to us players.''
Atletico will be without Brazilian playmaker Diego, a big loss for Simeone's attack, which has also relied heavily on Radamel Falcao and Adrian Lopez. Atletico's defense has also improved vastly, conceding only one league goal under Simeone, but will be stretched against Barcelona.
''Diego's absence is very notable due to his characteristics, but we'll find a solution,'' Simeone said.
Valencia must recover from the lopsided loss to Barcelona against Sevilla on Sunday, while Athletic Bilbao is at Villarreal, which remains three points above Racing Santander and the relegation zone.
Santander plays Sporting Gijon in a relegation zone matchup.
Also, it's: Real Betis vs. Getafe; Malaga vs. Zaragoza; Espanyol vs. Levante; Osasuna vs. Granada; and Real Sociedad vs. Mallorca.