BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- With only a debacle stopping Barcelona from reclaiming the Spanish league title, a pack of competitive sides is still in the hunt for a top-four finish and a Champions League berth for next season.
This season is almost two-thirds over and there is a logjam of teams jousting for the right to play in European club football's top competition and bank its lucrative payoff.
Only six points separate Malaga in fourth place from Levante in ninth, with Valencia, Rayo Vallecano, Real Sociedad and Real Betis in between.
Malaga prepares for its upcoming Champions League game at Porto by hosting Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, while Barcelona visits Granada before its trip to AC Milan to begin its own last-16 series.
On Sunday, second-place Atletico Madrid is at Valladolid, and third-place Real Madrid hosts upstart Rayo following its draw with Manchester United in the Champions League this week.
A top-four finish may be all for naught for Malaga, however, as it has been banned by UEFA from European club competitions for one upcoming season after failing to pay player wages and taxes on time.
Yet, despite the club's institutional troubles and wage dispute, its performance on the pitch hasn't suffered. Manuel Pellegrini's side boasts the best defense in the league with only 21 goals allowed. It is now set to play a Bilbao with the second-worst defense before it visits Portuguese champions Porto on Tuesday.
"We can't get distracted by Porto," said Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero. "We have to play Bilbao first, and that is the only thing we can worry about."
Barcelona visits Milan the following day, but before then it faces a revamped Granada which has won both its games under new coach Luis Alcaraz, including an upset of Madrid two weeks ago.
The Catalan club leads the league by 12 points, and forward Lionel Messi will be looking to extend his record-scoring run after finding the net at least once in the previous 13 league games. The Argentina star leads the league with 35 goals this season, trailed by Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and his 24.
Barcelona could be without striker David Villa after he returned to hospital on Thursday for the second time this week due to a case of kidney stones.
Sociedad hosts Levante on Sunday in a game of contrasts between the Basque side's possession-based attack and the visitor's counterattacking style.
Only three points separate the teams as they aim for at least a Europa League berth with a fifth- or sixth-place finish.
Besides Barcelona, Sociedad is on the league's best run over the past three and a half months with just one loss in its last 13 games. Levante, meanwhile, needs to stop its slide down the standings after losing four of its last five.
"We are on the right path. Now we are beginning to see a gap open up in the standings as we are entering the important stage of the season," said Sociedad defender Mikel Gonzalez. "But we can't go crazy. I know people are getting excited, but we don't know where we will be come May."
Valencia will try to regroup after its 2-1 home loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League on Tuesday as it hosts second-to-last Mallorca, also on Sunday.
Betis has sputtered of late and hasn't won in four matches. It has a tough outing at Espanyol, which is having a remarkable turnaround under new coach Javier Aguirre with only one defeat in 10 rounds.
Rayo is riding high after beating Atletico last weekend as it enters a second consecutive Spanish capital derby at the Bernabeu.
The Spanish minnow has won six of its last eight games and will hope to catch Madrid still weary from its thrilling 1-1 draw with United on Wednesday.
Last-place Deportivo La Coruna visits Sevilla on Friday under the orders of Fernando Vazquez, its third coach of this strife-filled season. Vazquez replaced Domingos Paciencia on Tuesday after the Portuguese manager lasted just six games.
Also on Saturday, Getafe hosts relegation-threatened Celta Vigo, while Real Zaragoza is at Osasuna with both teams on the brink of the drop zone.