MADRID (AFP) – European champions Real Madrid will be aiming to maintain their recent winning form when they host high-flying Villarreal at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday.
Barca’s shock 1-0 defeat to Malaga last weekend allowed Madrid to open up a healthy advantage thanks to their best La Liga performance in some time in a 2-0 win over Elche.
World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo scored his side’s second at the Martinez Valero to end a three-game La Liga goal drought and open up a three-goal lead over Lionel Messi in their personal dual for the Pichichi top goalscorer award.
However, Madrid continue to be dogged by injury problems with Gareth Bale a doubt for the visit of Villarreal due to an ankle injury he suffered as a result of a horrendous challenge from Aaron Niguez last weekend.
The Welshman’s absence could allow Jese Rodriguez a rare start with Luka Modric, James Rodriguez, Sergio Ramos and Sami Khedira all still sidelined by long-term injuries.
Los Blancos’ task is likely to be made easier, though, as Villarreal also won’t be at full strength after seeing off Red Bull Salzburg to progress to the last 16 of the Europa League just four days before their trip to the Bernabeu.
The Yellow Submarine’s coach Marcelino said after their 3-1 victory in Austria on Thursday that the “same players would definitely not play” in order to give many of his regulars a rest.
Moreover, on-form Russian winger Denis Cheryshev will definitely miss out for the visitors as he is on-loan from Madrid.
Barcelona have the chance to reduce the gap at the top to a point for 24 hours at least when they travel to Granada on Saturday.
The Catalan giants lost at Nuevo Los Carmenes 1-0 last season, but will travel with confidence having produced one of their best displays of the season in beating Manchester City 2-1 away in the first-leg of their Champions League last 16 tie on Tuesday.
Luis Suarez scored both goals to register his first double since joining from Liverpool for a club record fee in July. However, coach Luis Enrique insisted that penalty duties will not be handed to the Uruguayan despite Messi missing five of his last 10 spot-kicks for club and country.
Central defender Gerard Pique is the only first-team regular unavailable to Enrique through suspension, but the former Celta coach is expected to once again make various changes as he continues to rotate his ample squad in league games.