Bernd Schuster has experienced some lows in his 16-month spell as Real Madrid coach, but the German is currently facing his most difficult time with intense speculation that he could be set for the axe if things don't improve, starting with Saturday's match at Valladolid.
The champions are only two points behind leaders Barcelona, but Schuster is feeling the heat after back-to-back defeats to Juventus in the UEFA Champions League, unconvincing displays in the league and a humiliating King's Cup defeat at the Bernabeu to third division Real Union, who play at the same level as Real's reserves. "I'm not worried about my job, but I understand that others will have some doubts," said Schuster. "That's logical with what we are seeing."
To compound Schuster's woes, Dutch marksman Ruud van Nistlerooy, the league's top scorer two seasons ago, is out for the season needing surgery on his troublesome right knee. Real will hope Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuain can fill the void left by van Nistelrooy and build on his four-goal haul in the 4-3 win over Malaga last weekend.
"It's very sad because Ruud is very important to this team," said Higuain. "My team-mates and I offer him all our support and hope he gets better. . We are two points behind the leaders and our destiny is in our own hands in the Champions League."
Alarmingly, Real, who have not kept a clean sheet since the end of September, have leaked eight goals in their last three matches - something Schuster needs to sort out quickly.
Barcelona's fortunes are the complete opposite with eight straight league wins and scintillating football seeing them sitting proudly at the summit. Barcelona have plundered 34 goals in their first ten games, with Samuel Eto'o scoring 13 goals after a quadruple last weekend, and the Catalan titans have set their sights on the season record of 107 goals set by John Toshack's Real Madrid side in 1989/90.
Lionel Messi was unstoppable in last weekend's 6-0 destruction of Valladolid, and team-mate Thierry Henry is in no doubt that the little Argentine is currently the best player on the planet. "Messi is the best. What he does is from another world," explained Henry. "After watching Arsenal against Manchester United, I insist Cristiano Ronaldo is one thing and Messi is another. There is no comparison. Messi deserves to win the Ballon d'Or this year." Barca's next opponents are Recreativo Huelva on Sunday, and the men from the south coast will be hoping Messi and Eto'o have off days.
Villarreal sit a point behind Barcelona in second, and are the only unbeaten team in the league, although they crashed out of the Kings Cup to minnows Polideportivo Ejido in midweek. On Sunday, Manuel Pellegrini's team travel to promoted Malaga, who were unfortunate not to beat Real Madrid on their own ground last weekend, losing 4-3 against ten men.
Valencia are a point behind Villarreal in third after a strong start to the campaign under new coach Unai Emery, and host Sporting Gijon on Saturday night. The top five of Barcelona, Villarreal, Valencia, Real Madrid and Sevilla are threatening to race off into the distance, and Atletico Madrid coach Javier Aguirre is concerned that his team are already nine points off the Champions League spots. "We need to go on a run and win three or four matches on the spin to make sure we stay in touch with the teams at the top," explained Aguirre.
Atletico are at home to Deportivo La Coruna, one point above them in sixth, on Sunday, and Aguirre could do with a win to calm the persistent talk over his future with last season's Champions League qualification seemingly not enough to satisfy the demanding board.