BARCELONA, February 12 – Leaders Barcelona take on Atletico Madrid on Sunday looking to keep the pressure on at the top of the table but they will have to cope with a defensive crisis.
Coach Pep Guardiola will only have Carlos Puyol, Gabi Milito and Cabelino Maxwell available as Eric Abidal, Dani Alves, Dmytro Chygrynskiy and Toure Yaya are all injured, while Rafa Marquez and Gerard Pique are suspended.
A 2-1 victory over Getafe maintained Barca’s five-point advantage over Real Madrid and Maxwell is confident that despite the number of absences they will not drop points at the Calderon.
"To lose players is always a problem because we also lose quality and consistency but we have a group that can deal with this and it is ready for the match," said the defender.
"We want to get another victory which would be very important for us in the championship race.
"Atletico are a tough side who have a lot of quality in attack but we hope to stop them and we know that we have the players to get the win."
Atletico’s inconsistent form has left the side out of the hunt for a place in Europe but this weekend they will be looking for an upset and they can also count on the support of the white part of Madrid.
Real have the chance to reduce the gap to two points with a victory over bottom side Xerez on Saturday night and then they will have all eyes on Barca’s game.
"It would be great if Atletico could win this one. Our priority is to beat Xerez but after that match I will become a fan of Atletico," said Rafael Van der Vaart.
For Real they welcome back Cristiano Ronaldo who was suspended after being sent-off for elbowing an opponent when running with the ball.
While the top two teams in the league appear to be running away from the rest, Valencia have also opened up a five point gap over fourth-placed Mallorca.
It had appeared as though the race was opening up with Sevilla’s win over Valencia a fortnight ago but then Valencia went on to beat Valladolid while Sevilla crashed against struggling Zaragoza.
Valencia face a Sporting Gijon side who have lost their way in recent weeks with four straight defeats and coach Manolo Preciado has suggested as many as six changes to the side.
Mallorca are enjoying one of the best seasons in their history and they now meet Tenerife in a new Monday night time slot which has caused plenty of controversy.
The Canary Island side are particularly unhappy as the match coincides with their famous carnival festivities.
Sevilla look to get back on track at home to Osasuna while Deportivo la Coruna, a point behind them, travel to Espanyol who are edging closer to the relegation zone.
Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente will be looking to continue his fine form against Villarreal. Llorente scored a brace to help Bilbao turn the match around against Xerez last weekend.
Valladolid have a crunch relegation battle with Zaragoza who leap-frogged them last weekend with a win over Sevilla, and left them in the relegation zone.
Zaragoza have now managed back-to-back wins and go into the game with plenty of confidence.
Juanma Lillo’s appointment as coach of Almeria appears to be paying dividends as they have managed a win and a draw from their last two games and have a four-point cushion above the relegation zone as they prepare to take on Getafe.
Malaga, one point below them, face a tricky match away at Racing Santander.
Sporting Gijon v Valencia, Xerez v Real Madrid, Villarreal v Athletic Bilbao
Espanyol v Deportivo la Coruna, Valladolid v Zaragoza, Getafe v Almeria, Racing Santander v Malaga, Sevilla v Osasuna 19.00, Atletico Madrid v Barcelona 21.00
Tenerife v Mallorca