The Palau Reíal Major in Barcelona was the home for counts of Barcelona and later the Kings of Aragon.

Espanyol’s surprising start has not only stretched to this juncture of the season but has also improved from a club that only garnered points at home to a team that can win the tough matches away from home.  Impressively winning at Sevilla and Getafe in their last two games have shown that a top-six finish and a subsequent European berth is not only a possibility but a likely probability.

As a smaller team in La Liga and a club still fighting financial problems when it went into administration a few years ago, this January transfer window forced Espanyol to become a selling team rather than a buying team.  Two of their young and talented defenders, Víctor Ruiz and Didac Vilà, were sold within the past week to the Serie A, as Napoli payed los periquitos €6 million for Ruiz’s services and AC Milan valued Vilà at €4 million to become Milan’s future left back.

Espanyol will have to scramble this weekend to reshape their back four as they host third-place Villarreal at the Cornellà El-Prat, where the Catalans have won eight of their nine home matches this season, the only blemish being the 1-5 humbling by their city rivals FC Barcelona.  Another future defensive starlet, 18-year-old Jordi Amat, will likely play in central defense to pair up with Juan Forlín, but cover at left back could be dicey because Ernesto Galán and David García are doubtful.

Even though the Cornellà – El Prat has become a fortress for Espanyol, their defensive instability at this moment could not come at the worst time with the highly creative and innovative Villarreal coming to Barcelona on Sunday.  The seamless transition from Nilmar to Marco Rubén as Giuseppe Rossi’s strike partner has not slowed down Villarreal’s attack as Nilmar still recovers from his knee problems, and Villarreal cannot relax for a second with Valencia biting at their heels, only two points behind Villarreal for third place.

In this weekend’s other top matchup, Atlético Madrid hosts Athletic Bilbao as they have the traditional Sunday 5:00 PM kickoff time all to themselves.  The Atlético has reared its ugly head again, but this latest spell can directly fall on the absence of Sergio “Kun” Agüero because Diego Forlán has underwhelmed since his Golden Ball-winning performances in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and Diego Costa has been mediocre to decent.

For Athletic Bilbao, their self-destruction against Real Sociedad in the Basque derby in December led to a mini-renaissance for los leones.  Joaquin Caparrós, known for his tough love with his players, must have dressed the Athletic team down to its core after that loss, and they have responded with a 4-1-1 in La Liga since that loss and an inspiring two-legged cup tie with FC Barcelona in the Round of 16 in the Copa del Rey, where a late Éric Abidal goal gave the Culés just enough to advance 1-1 on aggregate because of the away goals rule.  Fernando Llorente continues to be the talisman for Athletic, and even through the swirling rumors of his departure, he has not let those distractions affect his performances on the pitch.

The times listed are Eastern Standard Time (EST) and include the pregame pleasantries, although sometimes the matches on the DirecTV La Liga specific channels may not go to match coverage until right before kickoff.

Jan. 29

Mallorca vs. Sporting Gijón – 11:45 AM on DirecTV channel 477 (477-1 for HD)

Levante vs. Getafe – 11:45 AM on DirecTV channel 478 (478-1 for HD)

Real Sociedad vs. Almería – 11:55 AM on Gol TV HD

Hércules vs. FC Barcelona – 1:55 PM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN3

Deportivo La Coruña vs. Sevilla – 3:55 PM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN3

Jan. 30

Atlético Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao – 10:55 AM on Gol TV HD

Osasuna vs. Real Madrid – 12:55 PM on Gol TV HD

Espanyol vs. Villarreal – 2:55 PM on ESPN Deportes/ESPN3

Jan. 31

Racing de Santander vs. Valencia – 2:45 PM on DirecTV channel 477 (477-1 for HD)

Unfortunately, the Málaga – Real Zaragoza match at La Rosaleda will not be shown on US TV.