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Top two collide in latest La Liga challenge for relentless Real

Madrid (AFP) – Cristiano Ronaldo returns for Real Madrid as the European champions put their Spanish record 40-game unbeaten run on the line for the second time in four days in a top of the table clash at Sevilla on Sunday.

Victory for the hosts would blow the La Liga title race wide open with Sevilla closing to within one point of Real, who also still have a game in hand.

Ronaldo was once again rested in the week he was crowned FIFA’s Player of the Year for 2016 as Real booked their place in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals on Thursday by surpassing Barcelona’s previous best unbeaten run of 39 games.

However, Sevilla were just seconds away from inflicting Real’s first defeat in eight months as Karim Benzema salvaged a 3-3 draw on the night deep into stoppage time as Real progressed 6-3 on aggregate.

Despite the drama, both sides had an eye on arguably the biggest game of the Liga season so far on Sunday that will fully test Sevilla’s credentials as title challengers.

“We will have to suffer just as much on Sunday,” said Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane.

“It is a hard place to go and they have very good players, but it is what faces every weekend and this weekend will be especially difficult.”

Jorge Sampaoli’s men moved up Barcelona into second with a hugely impressive 4-0 win at sixth-placed Real Sociedad last weekend and will be back to full strength as Mariano, Steven N’Zonzi and Franco Vazquez were all rested in midweek.

Zidane will also be able to welcome back Luka Modric as he too was rested, whilst captain Sergio Ramos, Mateo Kovacic and Lucas Vazquez made their first appearances of 2017 after returning from injury on Thursday.

– ‘MSN’ back in form –

Sevilla are likely to kick-off at the Sanchez Pizjuan back down in third should Barca avoid defeat when they welcome Las Palmas to the Camp Nou on Saturday.

The champions have won just two of their last six La Liga games, but did register a first win of 2017 at the third attempt with a 3-1 win over Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday to edge into the Cup quarter-finals 4-3 on aggregate.

“It is important for our confidence. We wanted and needed a result like that,” said Luis Suarez, after netting his 100th Barca goal.

“We are calm, working hard and know that the results will come.”

Further goals from Neymar and Lionel Messi, from a third stupendous free-kick in as many games, took Barca’s ‘MSN’ to 302 goals as a trio since Suarez signed in 2014.

However, tellingly it was the first time all three had scored in the same game since September as Neymar ended a three-month goal drought.

“We are on a run where the opponents need very few chances to score against us and we are finding it difficult in the final third,” said Barca boss Luis Enrique.

“I am sure that will be fleeting because the attitude that in all of the players and now we have to go on a run of victories.”

Las Palmas demonstrated their ability to spring a surprise with two late goals to win 3-2 at Atletico Madrid on Tuesday despite falling short of the Copa del Rey quarters 4-3 on aggregate.

Atletico will look to bounce back and solidify their place in the top four when Real Betis visit the Vicente Calderon on Saturday.

The bottom two also clash this weekend as Granada welcome Osasuna with both side having managed just one La Liga win in 17 games so far this season.

However, they remain just four and five points adrift of safety thanks to Valencia’s woes as, with interim coach Voro confirmed in charge till the end of the season, they go in search of a first league win since October at home to Espanyol on Sunday.

Fixtures (all times GMT)


Leganes v Athletic Bilbao (1200), Barcelona v Las Palmas (1515), Atletico Madrid v Real Betis (1730), Deportivo la Coruna v Villarreal (1945)


Valencia v Espanyol (1100), Celta Vigo v Alaves (1515), Sporting Gijon v Eibar, Granada v Osasuna (both 1730), Sevilla v Real Madrid (1945) 


Malaga v Real Sociedad (1945)

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