BARCELONA ( Associated Press) – Barcelona and Real Madrid will resume their battle for the title in Spain’s La Liga, where competition resumes after a seven-week break for the World Cup.
By early November, when the clubs’ activity was suspended, Barca and Madrid were already threatening to convert the remainder of the campaign into a limited two-team competition.
Nine points separate Madrid, who are in second, from Real Sociedad, who are in third.
Barcelona hold a two-point lead over top-placed and host city rivals Espanyol at the Camp Nou on Saturday, a day before defending champions Real Madrid travel to Valladolid.
The Catalan squad faces even more pressure to win what would be their first league title since 2019 after being eliminated in the group stage of the European Champions League, leaving their squad in the middle of the year. Despite the strengthening, which he had received. Through the sale of part of its television rights and other properties.
“We have to be self-critical. We were not at Champions League level, ”admitted coach Xavi Hernandez recently. “We lack football level, be more mature. We should have at least passed the groups. I think we have done very well in the league. I have high hopes of winning this league. It will give us a bit of stability as a club. It is a priority point”.
Xavi’s immediate concern is picking a striker to cover the absence of Robert Lewandowski, suspended for three games. The Polish striker earned a one-game penalty for two yellow cards in Barcelona’s last match, a 2-1 win over Osasuna in November.
Two more games were added to the punishment by the Royal Spanish Football Federation after considering that Lewandowski had disrespected the referee by pointing his nose twice after the expulsion.
Lewandowski, the leading scorer in La Liga with 13 goals, has helped Barcelona top the table. Xavi will turn to Ansu Fati, Memphis Depay or Ferran Torres as a substitute for the Polish striker against Espanyol and in the following two league games against Atlético de Madrid and Getafe.
Several Barca players featured in the recent World Cup, including Jules Kunde and Ousmane Dembele, whose French team lost the final to Argentina, and Lionel Messi, a former star of the Catalan team.
Xavi reckons the long break has allowed injured defenders Ronald Araújo and Sergi Roberto of Uruguay to recover and be ready to play on Saturday.
Barcelona will host an Espanyol team that has managed only a handful of wins this season and is in 16th place, just one point above the relegation zone.
Madrid will return to action under Carlo Ancelotti, who is trying to recapture the team’s best form after a few setbacks ahead of the World Cup break. A defeat against Rayo Vallecano and a draw against Girona in two of the last three games before the break deprived Meringue of first place in La Liga.
Karim Benzema must be prepared after his hopes of adding a World Cup title to his Ballon d’Or were hampered by a left thigh injury during training with France. Benzema has struggled with injuries this season and has made just seven league appearances.
“We have recovered Benzema well, which was important,” Ancelotti insisted on Thursday. “A highly motivated player has returned with us and we are confident he will give us a lot in the second half of the season.”
Valladolid occupy the twelfth box, having won three of their last five matches.