David Moyes will face the biggest test of his brief spell in charge of Real Sociedad when the Basques visit Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday.
However, the trip for Moyes’s men isn’t quite as daunting as it could have been with three-time World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo banned for kicking out at Cordoba defender Edimar during Madrid’s 2-1 win last weekend.
Gareth Bale sealed those crucial three points for Carlo Ancelotti’s men with a late penalty after Ronaldo had been dismissed for the ninth time in his career.
And Madrid will need Bale to be on top form whilst their top scorer watches on from the sidelines for the next two games.
Bale netted in Ronaldo’s absence through injury when the sides met earlier in the season, but, despite roaring into an early 2-0 lead, Madrid were eventually defeated 4-2.
Upsets have been a feature of Sociedad’s season as they have beaten La Liga champions Atletico Madrid and Barcelona as well as Real under three different coaches.
Moyes masterminded the latest of those triumphs against Barca early this month, but his side have failed to kick on since with just one win in five games since to remain in the bottom half of the table.
Esteban Granero will be returning to face the club where he started his career and all too aware that Sociedad have to be at their best if they are to shock Madrid once more.
“January is a difficult month for them because they play a lot of games and it seems that they aren’t in the same form that they were before, but they have too much potential for that to affect us. Moreover, they are playing at the Bernabeu where they have fewer doubts.
“We expect to face the best Real Madrid, but if we are also at our best then we have a chance to win.”
On top of Ronaldo’s absence, Pepe and Luka Modric remain out injured, but Isco should return in midfield after missing out against Cordoba.
Victory for Madrid will open up a four-point gap on Barcelona, who face the in-form Villarreal at the Camp Nou on Sunday.
The Catalans have been on fire themselves in recent weeks, scoring 26 times in seven straight wins since starting the year with defeat at Sociedad.
Nemyar was the star with a double as Luis Enrique’s men booked their place in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey with a 3-2 win over Atletico Madrid in midweek to already take his tally for the season to 21.
Villarreal are unbeaten in 18 games in all competitions stretching back to November, but will have to stop Barca’s devastating attack without the services of Brazilian defender Gabriel Paulista, who joined Arsenal on Wednesday.
As part of that deal, Costa Rica forward Joel Campbell has joined the Yellow Submarine on loan for the rest of the season and could feature this weekend.
Atletico, meanwhile, will have to lift themselves quickly from the disappointment of being dumped out of the Cup if they are to stay in the title race when they visit Eibar on Saturday.
Captain Gabi and Mario Suarez were both sent-off against Barca in midweek as Diego Simeone’s men lost their heads after the visitors’ third goal, but both will be free to play as their suspensions will only apply to Copa del Rey matches.
Simeone will also be able to welcome back Diego Godin from suspension, whilst Spanish international Koke should be fit after missing the last two games through injury.
Elsewhere, Sevilla can reclaim fourth place after being leapfrogged by Valencia last weekend when they host Espanyol on Sunday as Valencia aren’t in action until Monday when they travel to Malaga.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Rayo Vallecano v Deportivo la Coruna (1945)
Real Madrid v Real Sociedad (1500), Eibar v Atletico Madrid (1700), Granada v Elche (1900), Celta Vigo v Cordoba (2100)
Levante v Athletic Bilbao (1100), Almeria v Getafe (1600), Sevilla v Espanyol (1800), Barcelona v Villarreal (2000)
Malaga v Valencia (1945)
– Agence France-Presse