MADRID: Last weekend Real Madrid assumed the leadership of the Spanish First Division for the first time this season but injury worries against today's visitors Racing Santander could put them back among the chasing pack.
Central to the European and world club champions' problems is the fact that illness and injury has robbed them of every first team specialist in the middle of their back four.
Club captain Fernando Hierro has been out of action for four weeks with damaged knee ligaments and is not expected to return until the end of March.
His regular partner Ivan Helguera ended last Saturday's 5-1 victory at Alaves with a sprained right ankle and will miss today's game.
Regular back-up Francisco Pavon has had stomach problems this week and did not train on Thursday while Ruben Gonzalez is still recovering from a broken finger sustained in a reserve match.
“There's still plenty in the cupboard,” said Real coach Vicente Del Bosque, trying to put a brave face on the unusual situation.
However, Del Bosque must be regretting a little last summer's decision to unload no less than three central defenders – former Spanish internationals Ivan Campo and Aitor Karanka, and Brazilian Julio Cesar.
He is keeping his fingers crossed that either Pavon or Ruben, or perhaps both, will be passed fit to play today although Cesar Navas has been called up from the reserves for a potential first team debut.
Few pundits expect Real to actually go down to Racing after going 45 league games without losing in the Santiago Bernabeu, but a draw would open the door to both Real Sociedad and Valencia.
Real Madrid have 48 points from 24 games with second-placed Sociedad one point in arrears and Valencia another point further back in third.
Sociedad have only picked up four points from their last five games but remain unbeaten at home this season and the San Sebastian side will feel optimistic that they can rediscover their winning ways at the expense of fellow Basques Alaves tomorrow, who have conceded 11 goals in their last two games.
However, Sociedad will be without their suspended right back Aitor Lopez Rekarte, who had played every minute of their 24 games to date, leaving his teammate Agustin Aranzabal as the only Spanish First Division outfield player not to have lost a second of playing time this season.
Valencia are undefeated in their last eight games and play host to Atletico Madrid today.
“I think that in a few months from now, we are going to be celebrating again. It's not going to be easy, Madrid are very good and Deportivo (who are fourth with 45 points) have also sneaked up without making much noise, but the squad are starting to believe that we can win both the league and the Champions League,” said Valencia's Spanish international David Albelda on Wednesday.
The reigning champions' task of sending Atletico back to the Spanish capital with their tails between their legs was made a little easier by Wednesday's announcement that the visitors' teenage wonder Fernando Torres would be out for the next two weeks with a strained hamstring.
Torres, despite still only being 18, has found the net 11 times this season.
Barcelona are still undefeated since Radomir Antic took over at the helm last month and have now gone eight games, including friendlies, without a loss.
The Catalan club will be looking to extend that streak against Valladolid today, hopefully in similar fashion to the 4-0 thrashing they inflicted on them last season. – AFP