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Madrid title bid into tough stretch with Valencia

MADRID — Real Madrid's bid to end Barcelona's monopoly of Spanish league titles is set to enter its toughest stretch starting Sunday against third-place Valencia.

Barcelona has what appears to be an easy match at Zaragoza a day earlier, where a victory can cut Madrid's lead to three points to pile on the pressure for the Spanish leader's game at its Santiago Bernabeu stadium.

Madrid hasn't lost in 16 matches, winning four straight thanks to the steady supply of goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, who have combined to score a record 101 times this season.

Ronaldo's double in Wednesday's 5-2 Champions League win over APOEL Nicosia took his tally to 49 goals, helping to surpass the previous mark of 100 from a trio set three seasons ago by Barcelona's Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry.

"I'm happy since the team is playing phenomenally, and not just because of me," Ronaldo said after moving within nine goals of Lionel Messi's season total of 58.

With a game against a revived Atletico Madrid team looming on Wednesday, Madrid can't afford to ease up ahead of its match against three-time defending champion Barcelona later this month.

Angel di Maria also scored as Madrid reached the Champions League semifinals for the second straight year, the Argentina forward's timely return providing an extra boost after having missed much of 2012 to injury.

"Today I felt very good, and I hope I can continue like this until the rest of the season," Di Maria said.

Coach Jose Mourinho was able to shuffle his lineup to give season-long regulars like Xabi Alonso and Benzema some extra rest, while Jose Callejon also scored against APOEL to show the Spanish forward has fully recovered from injury.

Without a victory in three games, Valencia is struggling to hold its third-place standing and coach Unai Emery is under pressure.

Zaragoza has won three straight, the last two from stoppage-time winners, to climb away from last place. But Barcelona has won seven in a row against the debt-ridden club since its last victory over the Catalans five years ago.

Barcelona could be without defender Gerard Pique, who hurt his left thigh in Tuesday's 3-1 Champions League win over AC Milan. While Messi looks to reach 60 goals for the first time against a club he has scored seven times against in his last five games.

"We have to go out looking to compete, not just to draw," Zaragoza coach Manolo Jimenez said. "We have to remain realistic, that this is a superior team. But they are in the same league as us, a league in which we want to remain competing."

Zaragoza's four-point gap to 17th-place Villarreal, which plays Real Betis, could widen as the last two teams in Racing Santander and Sporting Gijon look to cut their deficits. Racing is at fourth-place Malaga while Sporting is at mid-table Getafe.

Malaga, which trails Valencia by one point, is two points above Levante in the last Champions League qualifying spot. Osasuna, Atletico, Sevilla and Espanyol are all chasing European spots with eight rounds remaining.

Atletico will likely need a victory at Levante on Sunday to stay in the chase as Sevilla is playing well and takes on Athletic Bilbao. Sevilla has won three straight while Bilbao's league form has dipped at the same time as the team progresses in the Europa League, its last victory coming more than a month ago.

In this weekend's other games, Rayo Vallecano plays Osasuna, Espanyol faces Real Sociedad and Granada travels to Mallorca.

Paul Logothetis can be reached at: