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Barca, Madrid win before Champions semis

BARCELONA--Cesc Fabregas scored late to give Barcelona a hard-fought 1-0 win over Levante, while Real Madrid beat Real Betis 3-1 on Saturday as both Spanish powerhouses prepared for the Champions League semifinals.

With top-scorer Lionel Messi out trying to heal his right hamstring in time for Tuesday's first leg at Bayern Munich, Barcelona's attack lacked the pace and creativity to break through Levante's disciplined defense until Fabregas struck six minutes from time.

The victory kept Barcelona well on pace to reclaim the Spanish league title with a 13-point lead and six rounds to play.

“It was important to win this game, even though some people want to think that the league is no longer interesting,” Fabregas told Spanish sports daily AS. “We know how much we have worked to win it, and we are going to keep fighting until the end.”

David Villa had a golden chance to score for Barcelona in the 17th minute after Levante's Papakouly Diop fouled Andres Iniesta in the area. But goalkeeper Keylor Navas blocked Villa's spot kick and sprung to his feet in time to parry Fabregas' point-blank rebound attempt.

Barcelona responded after coach Tito Vilanova sent on Xavi Hernandez and Alexis Sanchez in the second half, with the Chile forward finding Fabregas in the area to rifle the ball just inside the far post before two defenders could close him out.

Barcelona has 84 points, and with 18 left to play for, it can match or surpass Madrid's record of 100 points from last season.

Barcelona defender Eric Abidal played well — and the full 90 minutes — in his first start since playing for France in a friendly against Germany in February 2012.

Mesut Oezil scored twice to lead Madrid as it honed its attack before Wednesday's visit to Borussia Dortmund in Europe's final four.

Oezil worked a clever one-two passing combination with Karim Benzema to net Madrid's opener in the 45th minute, before the France striker polished off a counterattack in the 57th from a pass by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Oezil scored again in stoppage time after Betis substitute Jorge Molina pulled one back with a penalty kick in the 72nd following defender Nacho Fernandez's foul of Ruben Castro in the area.

“We know what kind of player Oezil is, everything that he creates (for the team),” said Madrid assistant Aitor Karanka. “He has had some (physical problems). Playing all he can is important for him. Now he can rest up for Wednesday's match.”

Madrid's win came at a cost, however, with Marcelo and Luka Modric both needing to be substituted for injuries. Karanka said Modric hurt a leg muscle. Benzema was also favoring his right leg after a collision with a defender and was subbed late.

Madrid coach Jose Mourinho rested several first-choice players, including his entire defense and holding midfielder. Brazilian midfielder Casemiro got his first start for Madrid after joining its reserve side from Sao Paulo this winter, while the little-used Fernandez stepped in at right back.

Betis, which stayed in seventh place and in the hunt for a Europa League spot, had its opportunities to get a good result. Dorlan Pabon clipped the crossbar in the 43rd just before Oezil's opener, and Castro also hit the bar in the 89th before Oezil put the game away.

A minute of silence was held at the start of the matches at the Santiago Bernabeu and at the Camp Nou in honor of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Elsewhere, Valencia routed Malaga 5-1 at home thanks to a brace by Roberto Soldado and goals from Dani Parejo, Sergio Canales, and Ever Banega, with Julio Baptista scoring for the losers.

Valencia's commanding win lifted it three points clear of Malaga and gave it sole possession of fifth place, one point behind fourth-place Real Sociedad before it visits Osasuna on Sunday.

Granada, meanwhile, outplayed Valladolid but had to settle for 1-1 as the Andalusian side edged one point clear of the relegation zone.

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FC Barcelona's Daniel Alves, of Brazil, in the front, duels for the ball against Levante's Juanfran Garcia during a Spanish La Liga soccer match at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Saturday, April 20. (AP)

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