MADRID: Tomorrow sees the end of the holiday season in Spain with traditional processions of the Three Kings and Real Madrid aim to celebrate in a manner fit for their biblical counterparts with a convincing victory over fellow championship challengers Valencia.
The kings of Europe and world club football in 2002 started the New Year on the best possible note with a 3-0 win over Sevilla on Thursday which elevated them to second place with 30 points from 15 games, five points behind league leaders Real Sociedad.
Valencia are third with 28 points but the reigning Spanish champions threw away their chance to exert further pressure on their two rivals when they crashed 1-0 at home to a resurgent Deportivo La Coruna the weekend before Christmas.
The big question is whether Real coach Vicente Del Bosque will include his Argentine midfielder Esteban Cambiasso for the repeat of the 2000 Champions League final.
Cambiasso was left out of the squad against Sevilla despite having played in 12 of Real’s Spanish league matches this season, and also in their European Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup triumphs.
Del Bosque said on Thursday that he had left out Cambiasso for tactical reasons.
“We’ve got a squad of 25 players and they are all in perfect condition. The absence of Cambiasso (for the game against Sevilla) is the same as McManaman, Tote or Portillo,” said Del Bosque.
However Cambiasso is currently in the midst of difficult contract renegotiations and Del Bosque is believed to view them as a distraction, just as he did when Iker Casillas had the same problems last season and Del Bosque dropped Spain’s World Cup goalkeeper as a result.
Valencia will be buoyed by the news that Spanish internationals Santiago Canizares and David Albelda are set to return after injury.
In Canizares’ case, the goalkeeper has been out for a month with a sprained right knee but may find it difficult to regain his place immediately as his deputy Andres Palop has been doing a good job in his absence.
Real Sociedad are unbeaten this season and will fancy their chances of extending their run to 16 games at home to Malaga on Sunday.
The visitors have lost their way after a promising start to the season and gone six games without a win.
However, Sociedad will be without their influential young playmaker Xabi Alonso. The Spanish under-21 international injured ligaments in his right ankle playing for the Basque country against Macedonia last Saturday and will be out for around four weeks.
The San Sebastian side will also be missing their suspended striker Darko Kovacevic, who has got nine goals this season.
“This is a team that doesn’t depend on any one player but losing Xabi and Darko is still a big blow,” admitted Real’s Turkish midfielder Nihat Kahveci on Thursday.
In Barcelona, the Three Kings arrive by boat from the Mediterranean and most Barca fans feel that their club and coach Louis van Gaal has been equally at sea this season.
Van Gaal avoided being cast adrift during the Christmas break by winning 4-0 in Mallorca two weeks ago, a victory which saw them edge up to 10th place, but the Dutchman will need a good result against bottom club Recreativo Huelva on Sunday if he is to continue at the helm of a rather unsteady vessel.
However, Recreativo could make life difficult for Barca, despite having lost their last three away games.
The Andalusians have been playing better than their results and lowly position would suggest, extending both Real Madrid and Real Sociedad in their last two matches.
Deportivo, who have recovered from their indifferent start and now gone nine games without a loss, play host to Celta Vigo in the always-tense Galician derby on Saturday.
Relations between the clubs has often been fraught but reached one of its lowest points on Wednesday when Deportivo president Augusto Lendoiro asked the Celta Supporters’ Club for a bank guarantee of 3,000 euros as an indemnification against damage to the Riazor stadium.
In response, Celta president Horacio Gomez and the entire Celta board of directors announced that they would boycott the fixture. – AFP