Spanish league leader Real Madrid bids to rebound from its surprise Copa del Rey elimination when it crosses town to face third-place Atletico Madrid on Sunday. The 3-1 aggregate defeat by Mallorca, which cost Madrid a place in the quarterfinals, was the team's biggest setback of the season so far, although coach Bernd Schuster said it could be well-timed. "I'm calm about being knocked out. Sometimes bad things also have very good things and this could be a help for us," Schuster said.
Madrid's loss was a boost for Atletico, which is enjoying its best season for 12 years.
However, Atletico hasn't beaten its biggest rival since October 1999, and coach Javier Aguirre's side will be the underdog again at Vicente Calderon stadium this weekend.
Such has been Madrid's domination of the league that its tally at the halfway mark of the season hasn't been bettered since 1969. After 19 rounds, the defending champions have 47 points and boast a seven-point advantage over FC Barcelona. Atletico follows with 37. Madrid is enjoying a six-game winning streak in the league, which began on Dec. 2 with a 3-1 win over Racing Santander. Santander's goal was the most recent Madrid has conceded in league action. Madrid's attack will again be spearheaded by Netherlands striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, whose 11-goal total this season includes three in the past two matches. Striker Raul Gonzalez, who was rested for Wednesday's 1-0 loss in the second leg against Mallorca, will return to captain the side.
Meanwhile, Atletico will look to its twin strike force of Argentina's Sergio Aguero and Uruguay's Diego Forlan, who share 16 of the team's 37 league goals so far, its best tally since 1996. Thierry Henry's return to form has been timely for Barcelona, which has lost striker Samuel Eto'o for the next month due to his commitments with Cameroon at the African Cup of Nations. Barcelona will also welcome back forward Lionel Messi after a monthlong injury absence for Sunday's game with sixth-place Santander, although Ronaldinho is again sidelined by the tendinitis which has prevented him from playing so far in 2008. Barcelona has taken 27 points from a possible 30 at Camp Nou this season, but may find Santander presents a stiff test. The visitors' league form has given them a fair chance of a European competition debut next season. On Wednesday, they advanced to their first Copa del Rey quarterfinals for a decade by beating Zaragoza 4-2.
Fifth-place Villarreal hopes to take advantage of No. 7 Valencia's league woes when the regional rivals clash on Sunday. Valencia gave new coach Ronald Koeman a winning start in November, but hasn't won any of its subsequent seven league matches, leaving the team lagging 20 points behind Madrid. The Dutch coach, who recently axed midfielders David Albelda, Miguel Angel Angulo and Manuel Fernandes together with goalkeeper Santiago Canizares, expects an improvement soon.
"I don't only look at results but also at how the team is playing. And we're showing that we are on the right track," said Koeman, whose side beat Real Betis on Wednesday to reach the Copa del Rey quarterfinals.
Sevilla's defense of its Copa del Rey title ended on Tuesday when it was knocked out by Barcelona.
On Saturday, the eighth-place team returns to league action with a visit to No. 15 Getafe, which it beat 1-0 in last season's final in June.
The scorer that day, Frederic Kanoute, will be absent as he forms part of Mali's squad at the African Cup, together with the club's influential midfielder, Seydou Keita.
No. 12 Zaragoza hosts Murcia on Sunday for its first league game under new coach Ander Garitano.
Garitano has replaced Victor Fernandez, who became the Spanish league's fourth coach to be dismissed this season following the team's 2-2 draw last weekend.
Also Sunday, it's: Real Betis vs. Recreativo Huelva; Valladolid vs. Espanyol; Almeria vs. Deportivo La Coruna; Levante vs. Mallorca; and Osasuna vs. Athletic Bilbao.