© AP, Jan 20, 2012

Real Madrid wary of Bilbao after loss to Barcelona

MADRID(AP) Spanish leader Real Madrid will be wary of a surging Athletic Bilbao as it looks to shake off another disappointing loss to Barcelona and focus on maintaining its five-point lead over the defending champions.

Bilbao, which has won three straight and is unbeaten in seven matches, is fifth in the league and in the chase for a European place, maybe even a Champions League spot, under new coach Marcelo Bielsa going into Sunday's game at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.

Marca newspaper reported Friday that Madrid coach Jose Mourinho will leave Pepe out of the squad following the Portugal defender's performance in Wednesday's 2-1 Copa del Rey loss to Barcelona, when he stamped on Lionel Messi's hand.

Pepe has been Madrid's most used centerback since his arrival in 2007, but Madrid may have seen enough after his ferocious temper - he was once banned for 10 games for stamping on a player's back unprovoked - got the better of him again against Barcelona.

Mourinho may not rush injured forward Angel di Maria back against Bilbao with the return leg of the Copa del Rey tie at Barcelona's Camp Nou on Wednesday.

Bielsa came under fire after Bilbao started with only two points from its first five matches, but the Argentine coach has dramatically turned the tide with his young, talented team winning 14 of its 24 matches in all competitions since, with only two losses.

Spain striker Fernando Llorente has returned after missing more than a month to injury, while Iker Muniain remains a potential call-up to Spain's Euro 2012 team as the teenage forward continues to thrive under Bielsa.

``He's improved with every game since the start of the season,'' Bielsa said of the Spain Under-21 international, who alongside Llorente, Javi Martinez and Andoni Iraiola could help the European champions defend their crown in Poland and Ukraine come June. ``The team is cohesive, compact and playing assuredly.''

Barcelona, meanwhile, travels to Malaga to close out the first half of the season in which it has struggled on the road.

The European champions have managed to collect just 13 of 24 points in eight away games this season, and it cannot afford to drop many more points if it hopes to catch Madrid, which has won the league 23 of 32 times when it finished the first half of the season at the top of the table.

``(We) feel like when we are ourselves and play like we know, no team can beat us,'' Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said.

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola admitted that Messi is not 100 percent after the Madrid win, when the Argentina international set up Eric Abidal for the late winner.

``He'll find his form, we can never doubt him,'' Guardiola said of the three-time Ballon d'Or winner. ``It's a long season and competing against such physical players like (Madrid has) it's easy to throw him off.''

Malaga is eighth in the standings, three points back of sixth-place Osasuna as it faces third-place Valencia, which is looking to bounce back from last week's league loss.

Sevilla and Real Betis play the first Sevilla derby in nearly three years on Saturday, while Villarreal will bid to finish the first half of the season out of the drop zone with a victory over Sporting Gijon on Monday.

Villarreal is 19th in the 20-team league, three points from safety in a nightmare season that has seen it exit the Champions League and cup competitions without a victory. ``The Yellow Submarine'' has gone 10 games overall without a win.

In other 19th-round games, it's: Espanyol vs. Granada; Racing Santander vs. Getafe; Real Sociedad vs. Atletico Madrid; Rayo Vallecano vs. Mallorca; and Levante vs. Zaragoza.

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