Real Madrid will have to overcome an injury to leading scorer Karim Benzema as the spluttering capital club return to domestic duty on Saturday when they host struggling Levante.
Rafael Benitez’s side have slipped to second, one point behind surprise leaders Villarreal, following successive draws against Malaga and city rivals Atletico.
Real remain one of two unbeaten sides, alongside Celta Vigo, but the international break came at a cost for Madrid with Benzema, scorer of six goals in La Liga this term, sustaining a hamstring injury in France’s 4-0 rout of Armenia, last week, while Luka Modric picked up a thigh strain while helping Croatia qualify for Euro 2016.
Benitez will also be without right-back Dani Carvajal who was forced out of Spain’s final two qualifiers with an ankle problem while there are doubts over the fitness of Sergio Ramos and Pepe as well.
With Benzema sidelined, Real, who face Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League next Wednesday before travelling to high-flying Celta Vigo, will be counting on Cristiano Ronaldo to rediscover his top form that saw him plunder an incredible 48 league goals last season.
The Portuguese star was awarded the European Golden Shoe for a record fourth time on Tuesday as the top scorer in the continent’s domestic leagues, but he has scored in just one of seven matches this campaign, albeit a stunning five-goal haul at Espanyol.
“I still feel good and young. I’m 30 years old and I want to play five or six more years, and during this time I want to do well and try to maintain my level from recent seasons,” Ronaldo told Spanish daily Marca upon receiving his award.
“Real Madrid should always win trophies and this year is no exception. I’m always gunning for more,” he added.
– Pressure on Neymar, Suarez –
Lionel Messi’s absence has been keenly felt by Barcelona since the Argentine went down with knee ligament damage at the end of September.
With Messi out until mid-November, Luis Suarez and Neymar have the arduous task of trying to help Barca overcome the loss of the four-time Ballon d’Or winner but it hasn’t been plain sailing for the Catalans, who are aiming to bounce back from a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla when they take on Rayo Vallecano at home on Saturday.
“Nobody can replace Leo, and nobody should think they have to take on his role. Neymar, Sandro, Munir and myself, we all have to keep playing our role in attack,” Luis Suarez told the La Liga website.
“Obviously, we feel the absence of the best player in the world, but we all have to chip in to help the team just like we’ve been doing these past few matches,” added the Uruguayan.
The game of the weekend in Spain pits table-topping Villarreal against third-placed Celta Vigo on Sunday.
Both sides will want to restore their early-season fortunes after labouring into the international break — Villarreal lost their unbeaten start at previously winless Levante while Celta’s momentum has been somewhat stalled by two straight draws.
“It will be a difficult game against a direct rival. We want to pick up the three points because winning after the break is very important,” defender Eric Bailly told Villarreal’s club website.
“We’ve started very well and we must continue in this way,” he added.
Atletico, who are three points off the pace in fifth, visit Real Sociedad, Valencia are at home to Malaga, while Sevilla will bid to continue their recovery with a third straight win when they go to Eibar.
Fixtures (kick-off times GMT)
Real Madrid v Levante (1400), Eibar v Sevilla (1615), Barcelona v Rayo Vallecano (1830), Valencia v Malaga (2000), Real Betis v Espanyol (2005)
Villarreal v Celta Vigo (1000), Real Sociedad v Atletico Madrid (1400), Getafe v Las Palmas (1615), Deportivo La Coruna v Athletic Bilbao (1830)
Sporting Gijon v Granada (1830)
– Agence France-Presse