Tough tests await for La Liga title contenders

Madrid: Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid were all convincing winners in the Champions League in midweek, but could face a more difficult time on their return to domestic action this weekend.

League leaders Barca have bounced back from defeat in their last league outing away to Athletic Bilbao by scoring 10 times in their last two matches against Cartagena and Celtic respectively.

However, they welcome a dangerous Villarreal side to the Camp Nou on Saturday aware that their visitors have already taken points from both Real and Atletico this season.

Winger Pedro Rodriguez has more than played his part in the Catalans` return to form with three goals in the last two games and he is looking for a strong end to the year with just three matches to go until the winter break.

"The team is doing fine, we feel good physically and we are looking forward to the matches that remain between now and Christmas," he told Barca TV.

"I am happy with how things are going personally and to be able to help the team. The goals help to make you more confident and I feel better physically and more comfortable on the field."

Neymar was the star of the show as Barca demolished Celtic 6-1 on Wednesday with his first hat-trick for the club.

Coach Gerardo Martino described that performance as his side`s best of his first five months in charge and he may well be tempted to retain the Brazilian through the middle in the "false nine" role despite Cesc Fabregas` return from suspension.

Andres Iniesta, Jordi Alba and the fit-again Dani Alves are all likely to return, but Lionel Messi and Victor Valdes remain sidelined by injury.

One of the main threats to Barca will be one of their former players in Giovani Dos Santos.

The Mexican has been one of the main reasons for Villarreal`s fine start to the campaign on their return to the top flight with six goals in 13 games.

"A return to Barcelona for me is always very special, it was the team that opened the door to me in Europe and where I learnt my trade," he said.

"I am very grateful for what they gave me so I don`t have any feelings of wanting to gain revenge against them.

"But now I am a Villarreal player, I owe it to my team to perform rather than having anything to prove to anyone."

The task is somewhat different for Real Madrid as they face the difficult conditions of an away trip to Osasuna on Saturday.

Osasuna are just one point above the relegation zone, but Real have only won once in their last five league visits to Pamplona and Osasuna also held Barca to a 0-0 draw earlier this season.

Madrid will at least be able to count of their lethal frontline of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema who have scored a combined 21 goals in their last five league games.

However, Luka Modric is a doubt after being forced off with an ankle injury in Madrid`s 2-0 win over FC Copenhagen on Tuesday.

Should Barca slip up, Atletico Madrid could move to the top of the table on Sunday when they host Valencia at the Vicente Calderon.

Atletico boss Diego Simeone had the luxury of resting a number of key players for Wednesday`s 2-0 win over Zenit St Petersburg, which saw them round off an impressive group stage campaign with 16 points from a possible 18.

The likes of Thibaut Courtois, Diego Godin and David Villa will return to the starting line-up, whilst Diego Costa will be looking to keep up his goal a game record in La Liga this season.
Fixtures (all times GMT)


Levante v Elche (2000)

Osasuna v Real Madrid (1500), Rayo Vallecano v Granada (1700), Barcelona v Villarreal (1900), Malaga v Getafe (2100)

Almeria v Espanyol (1100), Real Sociedad v Real Betis (1600), Sevilla v Athletic Bilbao (1800), Atletico Madrid v Valencia (2000)

Valladolid v Celta Vigo (2000)

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