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By Iain Rogers
MADRID, March 7 (Reuters) - The last thing struggling Deportivo La Coruna need with three crucial matches against fellow relegation candidates looming is a trip to face wounded La Liga leaders Barcelona on Saturday (1900 GMT).
The cash-strapped Galician club, one of the most successful sides in Europe around a decade ago, are rooted to the bottom of the table and apparently doomed to go straight back down after spending the 2011-12 season in the second division.
Forced to seek protection from their creditors at the turn of the year, Depor's three games after meeting Barca are against Celta Vigo, Real Mallorca and Real Zaragoza and will be key to determining their fate.
Long-serving midfielder Juan Carlos Valeron, who has been at the club since 2000, admitted that facing Barca was "a pain" but said it could also be seen as an opportunity to lift morale for the remaining 12 matches.
"The important phase will come afterwards but in terms of confidence getting a result in Barcelona would be incredible," the 37-year-old told a news conference on Wednesday.
"We are not going to throw any opportunity away," he added. "Although we know how tough it will be we have to go there with a positive attitude.
"We are very well prepared for the coming games against our direct rivals and we are convinced we can do it."
Barca will be itching to get back to winning ways after a miserable week in which arch rivals Real Madrid knocked them out of the King's Cup and beat them in the league.
They are still 11 points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid and may rest some regular starters before they attempt to overturn a 2-0 deficit at home to AC Milan in Tuesday's Champions League last 16, second leg.
"They have a very important game next week and maybe that means you have a chance to do something," Valeron said.
"They have had a few unexpected results and you never know whether it is better or worse to play Barcelona right now.
"They probably want to put an end to their poor run and that makes them more dangerous.
"But we can't think about that and need to focus on ourselves and on playing a good match."
Atletico failed to take full advantage of Barca's defeat last weekend when they were held to a 0-0 draw at fourth-placed Malaga and their lead over champions Real in third was cut to just two points.
The Europa League champions host sixth-placed Real Sociedad on Sunday (2000) after coach Diego Simeone, who has transformed the team since taking over midway through last season, agreed a new contract to the end of the 2016-17 campaign.
"This provides us with balance," Simeone told a news conference on Wednesday.
"We will continue to take each game at a time, developing step by step and not getting carried away by success, because it is difficult to maintain balance when you are successful," added the Argentine.
"If we achieve that we will definitely grow because there is strength, energy and talent in every department."
Real, on a high after the two victories against Barca and their elimination of Manchester United on Tuesday to reach the Champions League quarter-finals, play at Celta on Sunday (1800).
Malaga will look to cement their hold on fourth when they play at Real Valladolid on Saturday (1700).
Valencia, a point behind the Andalusians in fifth, visit Athletic Bilbao on Sunday (1100) and need to bounce back after they were knocked out of the Champions League by Ligue 1 side Paris St Germain on Wednesday. (Editing by Patrick Johnston)