Tim Stannard previews the Madrid derby and more, as Atletico go in search of an overdue home win against their city rivals...
Come in number six, your time has come. Yep, we're now ready for Real Madrid to fill their trews at the thought of Atlético Madrid, a side that they have failed to beat on five separate occasions already this season. The fear factor is going to be even higher this time around, with the visitors lacking one or two key personnel, but at least welcoming the return of Cristiano Ronaldo, now in his fourth decade.
Here are a few pointers to ponder in Saturday’s big clash and some other talking points for the weekend to come. Enjoy. Please...
Will Real Madrid survive defensive drop off?
Dearie me. The midweek clash against Sevilla was supposed to be a doozy for Real Madrid. Sevilla tend to roll over on these occasions, which should have left Madrid with a nice four-point cushion at the top of the table after a five-goal win.
Instead it was only 2-1 after the team were given a bit of a game by Unai Emery’s men, which cost them the next two months of James Rodríguez's career. But then the news got worse for Madrid.
Sergio Ramos is missing for the next three weeks with a leg strain, while Marcelo is suspended, joining the already-sidelined Pepe. This may see Alvaro Arbeloa called into action, which could make some of his midweek comments rather regrettable now.
The full-back pretty much asked Diego Simeone for a fight ahead of Saturday’s game, informing the Rojiblancos manager: “If Simeone needs eggs and salt then he knows where to find me” – a sort of 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough' comment rather than an invite to a picnic.
Added to Raphael Varane and his Champions League tiff, that makes two Madrid defenders who are off Simeone’s Christmas card list.
Atlético Madrid vs Real Madrid - Saturday 16.00 CET
Can Torres take advantage of Madrid’s soft centre?
The even bigger downside of Real Madrid’s suffering against Sevilla is that the defenders now preparing to face the elbows and knees of Atlético’s ferocious forward line are Varane and Nacho, characters not exactly in the mould of Pepe and Sergio Ramos for loving a scrap.
With some of the other Atlético Madrid players acting as battering rams, space might be created for Fernando Torres late in the day, a forward who has yet to score in La Liga having only found the target in the Copa del Rey (but against Real, no less).
If Torres manages to grab something from the game, the Rojiblancos idol may well guide Atlético to their first win at home against Madrid in La Liga since 1999, a hangover from the now-deceased curse.
Atlético Madrid vs Real Madrid - 16.00 CET
Will Pedro be left out in the cold in Bilbao?
Pedro. Remember him? Won the World Cup before. Quite good. Now a bench-warmer behind Barça’s stellar front-three line-up of Leo Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar. Only started five league games since the start of November. Yeah, him. Clearly, this is not ideal for a footballer who is potentially stuck at the Camp Nou with a no one in and therefore no one out transfer policy. Still, Pedro says he is happy enough, although he plumped on Thursday for the “You never know what will happen tomorrow approach” so enjoyed by Messi.
LLL has a feeling that someone will make way for Pedro in Bilbao against Athletic, in a clash that always sounds tougher on paper than it turns out to be on grass. Or at least snow, with San Mamés set to be a little frosty both on the pitch and from the fans in the stands on Sunday.
Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona - Sunday 21.00 CET
Will Valencia suffer more on-road agony ?
For a side supposedly looking to make the Champions League places this season – a failure to do so, would not be advisable for coach Nuno – Valencia are quite hopeless away from Mestalla. Monday’s rather limp defeat to Málaga summed up a campaign that sees them with just three Primera victories in enemy territory. One of those was at Getafe’s Coliseum so only counts as half a win.
Valencia are on their travels again this weekend and taking on a sprightly Espanyol side. A crisis meeting between manager and players this week better have worked in time for a visit to knock the Pericos off their perch. And yes, LLL is still using that Espanyol cliché and will do so until the end of time.
Espanyol vs Valencia - Sunday 19.00 CET
Will Eibar survive a frosty Friday?
While Eibar's mud-caked pitch is replaced by another that will probably end up being as much of a pit judging by the amount of rain and snow that's dumped on the Basque Country in winter, the plucky Primera battlers head to La Coruña to face Deportivo.
LLL should probably mention that three of Depor’s last five games have been held on Grim Friday, as the league looks to plonk some of its potentially less glamorous games well away from prime time.
Depor should have a little bit of an edge, as Eibar's training week has been a bit of a mess due to the weather. Thursday’s training session was suspended due to snow, with the side heading early to the Galician club to kindly use their training facilities. It’s heart-warming stuff for the fans who will be freezing on the stands.
Deportivo vs Eibar - Friday 20.45 CET