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La Liga: Tough trip to Bilbao for Barcelona a week ahead of El Clasico (preview)

Madrid (Spain), March 11 (IANS) FC Barcelona face a difficult visit to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday night a week ahead of the El Clasico clash against Real Madrid.

If Real Madrid beat Espanyol in this week’s encounter, Barca will kick off with a six-point lead over their rivals and a win in the San Mames Stadium would see that gap extended to nine points ahead of the meeting with their title rivals. Any other result would see Madrid go to Barcelona with a chance of moving within touching distance at the top.

Xavi Hernandez’s side are boosted by the return of Robert Lewandowski after a muscle injury that has sidelined him for two weeks, while Gavi is back to provide bite in midfield after his suspension, reports Xinhua.

However, Ronald Araujo misses out through suspension after being sent off last weekend against Valencia, while Pedri and Ousmane Dembele are still injured.

The home side will be without influential midfielder Oihan Sancet after his controversial red card last week away to Rayo Vallecano, while Inigo Lekue and Spain international goalkeeper Unai Simon are both injured and Julen Agirrezabala will continue in goal.

Barca travel after it was confirmed by the Spanish Prosecutor’s office that former club presidents Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu and the club itself face criminal charges over the payments made to Enrique Negreira, a former referee, and former Vice-President of the Spanish referee’s technical committee, with the clear implication that the club paid Negreira to receive favourable treatment from referees.

Athletic’s main problem in recent matches has been creating and scoring goals, failing to find the back of the net in three of their last five matches. Meanwhile, Barca have the meanest defense in La Liga, conceding just eight times in 24 matches so far.

However, the league leaders were disappointed in their last away game, losing 1-0 in Almeria, and much on Sunday could depend on how they ride out an aggressive start from their rivals.