Soccer-Real Madrid face Elche as fixture congestion takes toll on rivals

Soccer Football - Copa del Rey - Round of 16 - Elche v Real Madrid - Estadio Manuel Martinez Valero, Elche, Spain - January 20, 2022 Real Madrid's Eden Hazard celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates REUTERS/Pablo Morano

MADRID (Reuters) - Real Madrid have survived unscathed from a brutal schedule of fixtures and travel as their rivals stumbled and will look to consolidate their dominance at the top of LaLiga with victory over Elche on Sunday.

Real returned from Saudi Arabia as Spanish Super Cup champions after beating Athletic Bilbao 2-0 in the final on Sunday and rivals Barcelona in the last four.

They then reached the Copa del Rey quarter-finals after fighting back from going a goal down in extra-time to beat 10-man to beat Elche 2-1 on Thursday.

They will face the same opponents on Sunday in the league, their fourth game in eleven days, as they look to extend their lead at the top of the table.

"What do you want me to say? There is a calendar which is absolute nonsense," coach Carlo Ancelotti told reporters in Elche on Thursday.

Second-placed Sevilla, who trail Madrid by four points, had a game in hand but wasted a golden opportunity to close in on the leaders as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Valencia on Wednesday in a match they dominated.

They moved on to 45 points from 21 games, eight ahead of their bitter local rivals Real Betis in third, who knocked them out of the Copa del Rey with a 2-1 win last weekend.

Sevilla will host Celta Vigo on Saturday as they try to stay in the hunt for the title.

While the trip to Saudi Arabia failed to knock Real Madrid off their stride, the Super Cup's losing semi-finalists Barcelona and Atletico Madrid both suffered Copa del Rey defeats on their return.

LaLiga champions Atletico are in a slump and pressure is mounting on their manager Diego Simeone after two disappointing losses in less than a week.

They fell 2-1 to Athletic Bilbao in Saudi Arabia and on Wednesday they were outplayed by Real Sociedad, losing 2-0 in their last-16 cup clash in San Sebastian.

They are fourth in the LaLiga standings, 16 points behind leaders Real Madrid and will host improving Valencia on Saturday.

The situation at Barcelona appears even worse.

After losing 3-2 against rivals Real Madrid in the Super Cup, the Copa del Rey champions were knocked out of the competition after suffering a 3-2 defeat after extra time at Athletic Bilbao on Thursday to continue their difficult season.

Having exited the Champions League in the group stage, Barca are sixth in LaLiga with 32 points from 20 games, 17 behind Real.

The bad news keeps coming for Barca as one of their most promising player, Ansu Fati, suffered the recurrence of a thigh injury against Bilbao and could be set for an extensive spell on the sidelines.

(Reporting by Fernando Kallas; Editing by Toby Davis)

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