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Out of Copa, Madrid turns to league title chase

BARCELONA, Spain - Eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Barcelona, Real Madrid will now turn its focus to breaking its rival's three-year reign at the top of the Spanish league, beginning with a home game against last-place Zaragoza on Saturday.

BARCELONA, Spain - Eliminated from the Copa del Rey by Barcelona, Real Madrid will now turn its focus to breaking its rival's three-year reign at the top of the Spanish league, beginning with a home game against last-place Zaragoza on Saturday.

A win over struggling Zaragoza could increase Madrid's lead to eight points over second-place Barcelona, which plays at Villarreal later in the day.

Madrid captain Iker Casillas said his team has been bolstered by outplaying Barcelona during Wednesday's 2-2 draw, even if the Catalan side advanced to the Copa del Rey semifinals.

"We know we deserved more," the Spain goalkeeper said. "We are sad but also happy with the image we gave. People were saying that Barca was a notch above us, but it is clear that the two teams are a lot closer.

"Now we have to think about the league and the Champions League."

Despite remaining winless in its last nine visits under Jose Mourinho to Camp Nou stadium, Madrid played its best game against the European champions since the arrival of the Portuguese coach two years ago.

Madrid had several chances to go ahead before Barcelona scored two goals, and then fell one short of overturning the knockout series after a strong second-half comeback. Barcelona's 2-1 victory in the first leg, when Madrid's ultra-defensive stance backfired, proved decisive in ending Madrid's hope of repeating as Copa del Rey champions.

Mourinho's future at the Spanish powerhouse has come under question after he was jeered by his fans last week when reports emerged of strife within the squad over the opening-leg game plan.

But even after his team's excellent attacking performance, the former Chelsea coach, who turned 49 on Thursday, was steadfast in his defence of his strategy.

While not criticizing his coach's decision making, Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso recognized that the opening loss to Barcelona ultimately decided the series.

"The result from the Santiago Bernabeu weighed heavily on this game," Xabi said. "We have to go forward now one game at a time. We are in a fantastic position in the league."

Madrid routed Zaragoza 6-0 with a hat trick by Cristiano Ronaldo in the season opener. And with Zaragoza winless in its last 12 matches and without an away victory this season, another big goal haul for Madrid is possible.

Barcelona will have to overcome its thin front line in its visit to 17th-place Villarreal.

Midfielder Andres Iniesta (leg) and forward Alexis Sanchez (shoulder) joined striker David Villa and midfielder Ibrahim Afellay on the sidelines after picking up injuries during the win over Madrid.

"The series against Madrid is over, now we have to play a game at Villarreal that could directly influence the league race," said Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas, adding that the team is not worried about its accumulation of injuries.

"That's why we have the youth squad," the former Arsenal captain said. "It doesn't matter if there are only 14 or even nine of us (from the first team healthy), we won't look for excuses and we'll always look ahead."

Barcelona beat Malaga 4-1 as Lionel Messi scored a hat trick in southern Spain last weekend, but that was an exception in a season marked by the champions dropping points away from home.

Villarreal is coming off a 3-0 win over Sporting Gijon, its first victory under coach Jose Molina.

On Sunday, Malaga hosts Sevilla with both Andalusian clubs needing to jump start their respective campaigns for a top-six finish and a spot in European competition next season. Malaga hasn't won in six games, while Sevilla hasn't won in five.

Atletico Madrid is at Osasuna on Monday seeking its third straight win under coach Diego Simeone. Since the arrival of the former Argentina midfielder, Atletico has yet to concede a goal in three games and striker Radamel Falcao has scored five.

Also this weekend, it's: Rayo Vallecano vs. Athletic Bilbao; Espanyol vs. Mallorca; Real Betis vs. Granada; Real Sociedad vs. Sporting Gijon; Levante vs. Getafe; and Racing Santander vs. Valencia.