Barcelona seek to avoid international hangover

Champions Barcelona are hoping there will be no hangover after the international break as they look to hang on to top spot in La Liga when they face Racing Santander on Saturday.

Pep Guardiola's men will be expected to claim all three points at the Camp Nou, but Barcelona are usually at their most vulnerable immediately following an international break and Guardiola has considerable selection problems to contend with just now.

Xavi Hernandez limped out of Spain's UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier against Scotland on Wednesday and may be rested, while Javier Mascherano is another doubt after continuing with a twisted ankle in Argentina's defeat in Venezuela on Wednesday. Cesc Fabregas, Ibrahim Affelay and Alexis Sanchez are all out, but there is good news with Andres Iniesta ready to return after a month on the sidelines.

Barcelona can ill afford to lose any more players just now and Pedro this week warned of the difficulty of playing too many matches so early in the campaign. "It's always difficult to recover especially from top level matches with lots of travelling, but we're in good form and confident that we'll be 100 per cent for the game against Racing," he said.

Racing have already held Real Madrid this season, but their coach Hector Cuper was clear this week just how highly he rates the current Barcelona team. "In my opinion I've never seen anything like them since I was on this earth," said the Argentine. "It is simply excellence, they are the best team in the world by some distance."

Betis confident for capital challenge
Real Madrid sit one point behind their great rivals in third and on Saturday face a Betis team who travel to the capital looking to continue their strong start to life back in the top flight. Last season's second division champions have lost their last two matches, and have a poor record at the Santiago Bernabeu, but coach Pepe Mel is confident about his team's chances.

"I have to say and think we can win in the Bernabeu and if I get asked in the 85th minute I'll say the same thing. If we're losing 5-0 I'll probably admit it is difficult for us to come back, but until then let's see," he said.

Madrid will welcome back Portuguese duo Pepe and Fabio Coentrao after injury while Cristiano Ronaldo resumed normal training on Thursday after returning from international duty with a muscular problem earlier this week.

Levante have been the surprise package of the season so far. The unfancied club from Valencia sit second in the table after six games, level on points with Barcelona, but they face a tough task at home to Malaga. Manuel Pellegrini's side are fourth having won four of their last five games.

Valencia, in fifth, warm up for their UEFA Champions League clash with Bayer Leverkusen with a trip to Mallorca, for whom Joaquin Caparros takes charge of his first game after the departure of Michael Laudrup. 

Sixth-placed Sevilla will fancy their chances at home to bottom club Sporting Gijon, who have taken just one point from their opening six games.

Elsewhere, Atletico Madrid will need to gain something from their trip to Granada to maintain contact with the early pacesetters.

Villarreal can be forgiven for having Manchester City on their minds ahead of their Champions League trip to England on Tuesday, but before that Juan Carlos Garrido's faltering side go to Getafe looking for only a second league win.

Rayo Vallecano entertain Espanyol in Madrid on Sunday, when Zaragoza face Real Sociedad, while a derby clash between Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna is to come on Monday.