PREVIEW - Malaga cruise in Europe, slide in La Liga
MADRID (Reuters) - It says much about the strength of La Liga that Champions League debutants Malaga can make the last 16, finishing top of their group ahead of AC Milan, yet still struggle to make an impression domestically.
All of Spain's teams - Barcelona, Real Madrid, Malaga and Valencia - have qualified for the Champions League knockout round with one game remaining but at home the feeling remains that the La Liga title is still a two-horse race.
Qatar-owned Malaga, who host Valencia on Saturday (1900), have impressed this season and have the tightest defence in La Liga but are already 15 points adrift of unbeaten leaders Barcelona and have gone five games without a win in all competitions.
Valencia, last season's third-placed finishers, are a point further back in eighth.
"I am delighted for the players who were given the opportunity to play for guaranteeing top spot in the group and for keeping our squad more or less rested," Malaga boss Manuel Pellegrini said after a second-string XI secured a 2-2 draw away at Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday.
"I don't know if you can say we are going through a bad spell...but we have to look for more points in La Liga between now and December."
While Malaga have been finding life tougher at home of late, Valencia are slowly turning the corner after a poor start to the campaign.
Coach Mauricio Pellegrino has guided his side to a run of six matches unbeaten and coming back to draw 1-1 with 10 men against Bayern Munich on Tuesday has given them a boost.
"Valencia still have a say in what will happen this season," forward Sofiane Feghouli told sports daily Marca.
Barca, who face a tough trip to play fourth-placed Levante on Sunday (2000), have 34 points from 12 matches, three ahead of Atletico Madrid in second, and eight in front of their arch-rivals Real, who visit Real Betis on Saturday (2100).
Like Malaga and Valencia, Atletico and Sevilla expect to be challenging for a top-four finish and they also face off, at the Calderon on Sunday (1800).
Atletico are the only side to have matched the relentless pace of Barca and Real, but Diego Simeone's men have not been as convincing in their last few outings while still eking out results.
Inconsistent Sevilla head to the capital fired up by their 5-1 demolition of city rivals Betis last weekend, but arrive without leading scorer Alvaro Negredo, who has been ruled out for three weeks with a muscle tear.
"Why can't we play like we did against Betis every Sunday?" Sevilla president Jose Maria del Nido asked reporters on Thursday.
With a trip to the Bernabeu looming next weekend, Atletico are keen to keep Jose Mourinho's men as far behind them as possible, but Spain's Euro 2008 winning coach Luis Aragones did not hold out much hope for his former club in the long run.
"Atletico are surprising people but the league title is still a race between two teams," Aragones, who led Atletico to the league title in 1977, told reporters. (Editing by Clare Fallon)
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