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La Liga Weekend Preview: Can Madrid Sides Take Advantage Of Missing Barcelona?

rafa-smilingIf the rumors are to be believed, Rafael Benitez could take charge of Real Madrid for the final time if his side fails to convincingly beat city rivals Rayo Vallecano on Sunday.

Madrid have lost three of their last five league games to slip five points behind leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid with Benitez rumoured to be one more defeat away from the sack. However, it would take a monumental collapse for Real to fail to add to a run of 14 consecutive wins against Rayo stretching back over 15 years.

Barcelona’s participation in the FIFA Club World Cup this weekend does at least allow Madrid to cut the gap on one of their title rivals before La Liga shuts down for 10 days over Christmas. Moreover, Benitez could have a fully-fit squad to choose from as Raphael Varane and Dani Carvajal stepped up their recovery from injury this week.

Madrid’s problems appear minimal compared to Rayo, who have slipped into the relegation zone after three consecutive league defeats. Paco Jemez’s men did reach the last 16 of the Copa del Rey on away goals on Wednesday, despite losing 3-1 at Getafe. Yet the performance offered Jemez little hope ahead of the trip to the Santiago Bernabeu.

“I would swap Madrid’s crisis for ours,” he said. “If we play like we did against Malaga or today (Wednesday), we can’t even compete against a second division team. If we play like we did against Villarreal, Espanyol, Las Palmas or Valencia then yes we will be competitive (against Madrid).”

Atleti sitting pretty at summit
Atletico are guaranteed to be at least joint top at Christmas, but Diego Simeone’s men can take top spot on their own for the first time since they claimed the title against all odds 18 months ago should they avoid defeat at Malaga on Sunday. Los Rojiblancos have won nine consecutive games in all competitions to book their place in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League and Copa del Rey, as well as storming to the top of La Liga.

Diego Godin and Antoine Griezmann were rested for the win over minnows Reus in the Cup on Thursday and are expected to return along with Colombian striker Jackson Martinez after a six-week injury layoff.

Valencia were also winners in the Cup in midweek as Gary Neville got his first win as a head coach at the third time of asking and the Englishman will be expected to follow that up with a first La Liga win at home to Getafe on Saturday.

“There is nothing like winning for confidence,” said Neville after Valencia’s first win in four games in all competitions. “We have to improve and we will with these players. They are young, but they are willing to learn, to listen and discuss ideas which has really satisfied me this week.”

Elsewhere, Real Betis host a resurgent Sevilla in the first Seville derby in 20 months. Sevilla are unbeaten in six games after a difficult start to the season and could move within three points of the top four with a win.

Celta Vigo currently occupy fourth and will be confident of staying there despite missing top scorer Nolito through injury as they visit struggling Granada. However, any slip up from the Galicians would allow Villarreal to move into the Champions League places should they back up their win over Madrid with another victory at Real Sociedad.

Spanish La Liga fixtures

Valencia v Getafe, Espanyol v Las Palmas, Real Betis v Sevilla, Deportivo La Coruna v Eibar

Real Madrid v Rayo Vallecano, Real Sociedad v Villarreal, Granada v Celta Vigo, Athletic Bilbao v Levante, Malaga v Atletico Madrid