Spanish champions Real Madrid warm-up for Wednesday's UEFA Champions League duel against Liverpool with a home match against Real Betis tomorrow as they continue their bid to reel in runaway leaders Barcelona.
The upcoming European tie with Liverpool has understandably stolen the limelight this week but Real need to retain their focus as they attempt to cut Barcelona's ten-point advantage at the top. Juande Ramos's team have won eight successive league games and shaved two points off Barcelona's lead last weekend when they crushed Sporting Gijon 4-0, while Betis held Barca to a 2-2 draw.
"Since my arrival (at the end of December) we have only collected one point less than Barca," Ramos pointed out in newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport. "There is no doubt we are doing brilliantly and are not that far away from the best Barcelona in history."
Statistics show Barcelona have recorded the most ever points in the first half of the season - an incredible 50 points from 19 games - but coach Pep Guardiola has insisted that it will count for nothing if they don't win the title. Buoyed by a derby win over Sevilla and a point against Barca, Betis come to Madrid full of confidence and Real will be without midfielder Lass Diarra through a bout of gastroenteritis while Arjen Robben is a slight doubt with a hip problem.
Barcelona travel to Lyon on Tuesday for their UEFA Champions League assignment but first of all they have a derby match against Espanyol on Saturday night. It is top against bottom and with home advantage Barcelona are expected to win, especially when taking into account that Espanyol have not tasted victory since the beginning of November.
Nevertheless Barcelona should not be complacent having struggled to a 2-1 win in the first league game when Espanyol led 1-0 until Thierry Henry equalised and Lionel Messi scored a winning penalty eight minutes into injury time. Samuel Eto'o scored twice as Barca came from behind to snatch a 2-2 draw at Betis last weekend but has admitted this week that he may not stay at the club beyond the end of the season.
"Will I stay at Barca? I have made a decision on my future but I can't say anything at the moment," Eto'o told magazine Sportsweek. "I don't like players that kiss the badge after scoring because they don't hesitate to leave if another club offers a million euros more."
Eto'o, top-scorer in the league with 23 goals, has openly said former club Real Mallorca is where his heart lies, but the club are third from bottom of the table so a transfer would represent a huge backward step. Guardiola was willing to let Eto'o go in the summer but will be glad he didn't with the Cameroon forward's goals powering his team to the summit.
"For me ten points is a considerable advantage and we are also on form and dominating games," explained Barca midfielder Xavi. "We are calm and hope to continue like this because we could win some titles this season."
Elsewhere, the game of the weekend sees UEFA Champions League hopefuls Atletico Madrid and Sevilla face-off in Seville on an action-packed Saturday. Sevilla sit third, which is where they would like to be at the end of the campaign, while Atletico are five points behind in sixth.
Goals are usually forthcoming in this fixture and Atletico attacker Diego Forlan sung the praises of strike partner Sergio "Kun" Aguero comparing the Argentine to former Brazil and Barcelona great Romario. "Aguero is like Romario," said Forlan. "His style is reminiscent of how Romario used to play. He is rapid, a great dribbler and has lots of ability."
Valencia are three points behind Sevilla in fourth and travel to Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday desperate to cure their away sickness. Valencia have lost their last five away matches and midfielder David Albelda admits it is a difficult time for everyone at the club. "Over a season you have highs and lows and I think you can say we are having our most difficult moment of the season," Albelda said.