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Real aim to maintain three-point lead

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MADRID, Spain, January 6- Real Madrid start 2012 still looking for a way to beat Barcelona but they do hold a three-point lead in the title chase and this weekend they take on struggling Granada while the champions face a tricky derby away to Espanyol.

After once again being outdone by Barcelona last season in the championship, as well as knocked out by their arch-rivals in the Champions League, they have started this campaign in ominous form but their only defeat in 20 games came last month when they were humbled 3-1 at home by Pep Guardiola’s side.

That victory meant that Barca remained in touch with Real at the top before they ended the year on a high by winning the Club World Cup in Japan.

Both sides returned to action after the Christmas break with King’s Cup victories although Real were forced to come from two goals down to beat Malaga and coach Jose Mourinho was very critical of the first-half performance.

“I told the players at the break that it was a shame I couldn’t make 11 changes,” said Mourinho. “Those that I changed I did so for tactical reasons and not because they were any worse than anyone else.

“You will have to ask the players why they improved in the second half and it is a question that I am also asking them.”

Pepe will be missing from the defence against Granada through suspension but Sergio Ramos is fit to return after picking up a hamstring strain against Sevilla in the last league game before Christmas.

It was easier for Barca who swept aside Osasuna 4-0, with Lionel Messi, who started on the bench due to flu symptoms, hitting a double.

“People ask what is his secret and the fact is that it is because he is the best in the world. He has returned from holiday, trained two or three times but he is still physically strong as well as being a good player,” said team mate Sergio Busquets.

“We now face a derby which will be competitive as both teams will be trying to win. Apart from the city rivalry, Espanyol are very strong at home, they have good young players and are looking to finish high up in the table.”

Third-placed Valencia are just four points behind Barcelona after an excellent start to the season and they are also in derby action against struggling Villarreal who will be under the orders of new coach Jose Francisco Molina following Juan Carlos Garrido’s dismissal.

Few would have expected Levante to be in the Champions League places and they now take on Mallorca while Osasuna, also surprisingly riding high in fifth, travel to Real Sociedad.

Sevilla have suffered from a lack of consistency and aim to bounce back from consecutive defeats against Rayo Vallecano. Below them Atletico Madrid have a crunch match with Malaga as they look to get back in the European hunt.

At the other end of the table the bottom two sides, Zaragoza and Racing Santander, go head-to-head while above them Sporting Gijon are away to Real Betis. Elsewhere Getafe are in action against Athletic Bilbao.

Fixtures

Saturday

Racing Santander v Zaragoza, Levante v Mallorca, Real Sociedad v Osasuna, Real Madrid v Granada, Malaga v Atletico Madrid

Sunday

Rayo Vallecano v Sevilla, Getafe v Athletic Bilbao, Villarreal v Valencia, Real Betis v Sporting Gijon, Espanyol v Barcelona

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