Madrid (AFP) – Gareth Bale and Real Madrid may each have enjoyed a recent revival but their challenge now is to maintain momentum ahead of next week’s crunch Champions League clash with Paris Saint-Germain.
Real travel to Espanyol in La Liga on Tuesday, looking to reduce the gap behind leaders Barcelona, who visit Las Palmas two days later. Second-placed Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, host Leganes on Wednesday.
But, with Barca 14 points clear of Los Blancos and all-but uncatchable at the top, the priority for Zinedine Zidane’s side is to keep the winning feeling after five victories on the bounce.
Particularly eager will be Bale, who has endured an injury-hit season, but delivered a statement performance, and a goal, in Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of Alaves.
With next week’s crunch Champions League second leg against PSG looming, the Welshman will be looking to reassert his part in the three-pronged threat with Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, Real’s traditional ‘BBC’.
Bale’s place is not secure. He was left out of the starting line-up against Leganes last week, while Zidane’s preference of Isco in the first leg against PSG was vindicated, as his team ran out 3-1 winners.
The talented Marco Asensio also made a decisive contribution off the bench.
But, at his best, Bale remains a formidable force and Espanyol may well find an opponent this week keen to prove a point.
“Every day it is much better, it is what we want, we want to see a 100 percent Gareth,” Zidane said on Monday.
“The other day he played a great game, scored a goal. The most important thing is his participation in the game and he has done very well.”
– Barca’s ‘fab four’ –
There is an attacking conundrum to be solved too at Barcelona, where Saturday’s 6-1 drubbing of Girona thrust into view the ‘fabulous four’ of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele.
Coutinho, who arrived from Liverpool in January, and Dembele, whose debut season in Spain has been thwarted by fitness problems, are the new additions.
They may both be retained against Las Palmas but it remains to be seen whether coach Ernesto Valverde believes he can risk the whole quartet against more established opposition.
Barca host Atletico Madrid on Sunday and then Chelsea in the Champions League next month.
On Coutinho and Dembele, Valverde said: “These are two players who can help us a lot, with different styles. Coutinho can play more in the hole, he is technically comfortable, and Dembele is more of an out-and-out winger.”
Barca’s chief rivals for the title remain Atletico, who sit seven points adrift, and this weekend’s meeting will offer Diego Simeone’s side a rare chance to close the gap.
First, however, they must overcome Leganes and claim an eighth consecutive victory to follow Sunday’s emphatic 5-2 win at Sevilla.
French forward Antoine Griezmann, instrumental as ever, scored a hat-trick.
“He is very good, an extraordinary footballer,” Simeone said after the match.
“Everyone is currently in a brilliant run of form. We played good football and must continue in this way.”
Elsewhere on Wednesday, Valencia, in fourth, visit Athletic Bilbao, and Villarreal, in fifth, travel to eighth-placed Eibar. Sixth-placed Sevilla are away at Malaga.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Espanyol v Real Madrid (1900), Girona v Celta Vigo (2030)
Athletic Bilbao v Valencia, Getafe v Deportivo la Coruna, Malaga v Sevilla (1830), Atletico Madrid v Leganes, Eibar v Villarreal (2030)
Real Betis v Real Sociedad (1830), Las Palmas v Barcelona (2000), Alaves v Levante (2030)
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