Real host Barca in El Clasico as La Liga title race hots up

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MADRID (Reuters) - Barcelona travel to Real Madrid on Saturday in what is set to be one of the most pivotal El Clasico meetings in recent memory, with both sides fast closing in on stuttering Atletico Madrid at the top of the La Liga table.

The Catalans, unbeaten in 19 league games, are just one point off the pace while third-placed Real trail by three points after closing the gap from 10 in February.

Zinedine Zidane's side are also flying high after their comprehensive 3-1 victory over Liverpool in their Champions League quarter-final first leg on Tuesday.

Madrid forward Karim Benzema has warned that they need to keep Lionel Messi, who has scored 12 goals in his last 10 league appearances, out of the game if they are to get the three points.

"It'll be a tough game against a side who like to dominate the ball," Benzema said.

"They've got a great goalkeeper and of course Messi, the player who does everything for Barcelona. We need to be wary of him because he's so, so dangerous.

"Just like in the first meeting this season we'll go out on the pitch looking for the win, it's a final for us."

The hosts will be without injured captain Sergio Ramos and centre back partner Raphael Varane, who is isolating following a positive COVID-19 test.

However, Eden Hazard and Dani Carvajal could both be available for Zidane after returning to full training.

Barca, meanwhile, are sweating on the fitness of defender Gerard Pique, who has a knee issue.

Atletico travel to Real Betis having won just three of their last 10 games in all competitions as they struggle to keep their rivals at bay.

Coach Diego Simeone will be without La Liga's second top scorer Luis Suarez, who has a calf problem, and suspended midfielder Marcos Llorente for the trip to Andalucia.

Joao Felix and Yannick Carrasco are back having missed last weekend's 1-0 defeat to Sevilla through injury.

(Reporting by Joseph Walker, editing by Pritha Sarkar)