Spain roundup - Barca have defensive headache for Rayo trip
MADRID (Reuters) - Brief news from La Liga ahead of this weekend's matches (all times GMT):
* Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova will have to shuffle the leaders' defence for Saturday's trip to Rayo Vallecano, with centre back Javier Mascherano likely to be suspended for the game in Madrid (2000).
Mascherano was sent off in last weekend's 5-4 win at Deportivo Coruna and although the club have appealed the Argentine's dismissal, the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) is unlikely to exonerate him.
* Mascherano would join injured Spain pair Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique on the sidelines, while Brazil right back Daniel Alves has not played since being forced off in this month's 2-2 'Clasico' draw at home to Real Madrid.
Midfielders Alex Song and Sergio Busquets and fullback Adriano can fill in at centre back and 21-year-old academy graduate Marc Bartra performed solidly there in Tuesday's 2-1 comeback win at home to Celtic in the Champions League.
* Barca playmaker Andres Iniesta netted his first goal of the campaign to make it 1-1 against Celtic and his remarkable record of never losing a match when he scores was preserved.
The Spain international, scorer of the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final, has 42 goals for his club in the same number of games and Barca have won 37 of those and drawn five.
* Atletico Madrid, level on 22 points with Barca at the top but behind on goal difference, host Osasuna on Sunday (1845) after extending their winning run to 11 matches in all competitions this season thanks to Thursday's 2-1 Europa League win at home to Portuguese side Academica.
Resurgent under coach Diego Simeone, Europa League champions Atletico are now unbeaten in 21 games, a club record, but the Argentine wants his players to focus on their jobs on the pitch rather than their impressive statistics.
"Numbers are more for history and the fans than for coaching staff and players," he said at a news conference after the Academica match.
* Third-placed Malaga are also on a high after European success following their memorable 1-0 win at home to seven-times winners AC Milan in Champions League Group C on Wednesday, in what was probably the biggest game in the club's history.
Qatar-owned Malaga, who play at struggling Espanyol on Saturday (1500), have lost only once in 13 games this term in all competitions despite cashflow problems over the summer that led to the departure of some of their best players and delays in wage payments.
"We haven't had it easy and this has made the group even stronger in chasing a goal that through performance on the pitch you can solve the club's internal problems," coach Manuel Pellegrini said after the Milan game.
"There is total commitment to what we are doing and this is reflected on the pitch," the Chilean added.
* Fourth-placed champions Real Madrid also have a selection headache for their trip to play Real Mallorca on Sunday (2030) after midfielder Sami Khedira was injured in the first half of Wednesday's 2-1 Champions League defeat at Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund.
Coach Jose Mourinho replaced Khedira with new signing Luka Modric but the Croat, who has yet to settle after joining from Tottenham Hotspur, is much less effective than the German in the holding midfield role alongside Xabi Alonso.
Another option for Mourinho is Michael Essien, who joined from Chelsea in the close season, but he has been filling in at left back in the absence of injured trio Marcelo, Fabio Coentrao and Alvaro Arbeloa.
* Valencia, down in ninth place, are looking to get their stuttering campaign back on track at Real Betis on Saturday (1700) to help ease pressure on their Argentine coach Mauricio Pellegrino, who replaced Unai Emery at the end of last season.
The players have sowed the seeds of a revival thanks to last weekend's 3-2 comeback win at home to Athletic Bilbao and Tuesday's 3-0 Champions League win at BATE Borisov, when captain Roberto Soldado scored a hat-trick.
* Bilbao's season, meanwhile, is in danger of unravelling after they followed up the defeat in Valencia with a 2-1 Europa League reverse at Olympique Lyon.
Coached by another Argentine, Marcelo Bielsa, the Basque club, who reached the Europa League and King's Cup finals last season, are down in 17th place after losing four of their opening eight domestic league games. (Reporting by Iain Rogers; Editing by John O'Brien)
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