BARCELONA, Spain (AP)Barcelona and Real Madrid resume their fight for the Spanish league title as the competition starts again following a seven-week hiatus for the World Cup.
When club play stopped in early November, Barcelona and Madrid were already threatening to make it a two-team race with nine points separating second-place Madrid from Real Sociedad in third.
Barcelona has a two-point lead and hosts crosstown rival Espanyol at Camp Nou on Saturday, a day before defending champion Madrid visits Valladolid.
The Catalan club is under even more pressure to win its first league title since 2019 after it flopped in the Champions League group phase despite reinforcing its squad this summer with funds it scrounged up by selling off part of its television rights and other assets.
”We have to be self-critical. We were not up to the task in the Champions League,” coach Xavi Hernandez said recently. ”I think we have competed well in the Spanish league. I have high hopes that we can win this league. That would give the club some stability. It is a priority.”
Xavi’s immediate concern is picking a striker to lead his attack with Robert Lewandowski serving a three-game suspension. Lewandowski earned a one-game suspension for two yellow cards in Barcelona’s 2-1 win at Osasuna in its last game back in early November. The Spanish soccer federation tacked two more games onto his suspension for Lewandowski’s ”show of disrespect” toward the referee when he twice pointed to his nose following his sending-off.
Lewandowski and his league-leading 13 goals have helped put Barcelona at the top of the table. Xavi will likely look to either Ansu Fati, Memphis Depay or Ferran Torres to replace the Poland striker against Espanyol and subsequent league games against Atletico Madrid and Getafe.
Several Barcelona players participated in the World Cup, including Jules Kounde and Ousmane Dembele, whose France lost in the final to Argentina and former Barcelona great Lionel Messi.
Xavi said that the long break has allowed for injured defenders Ronald Araujo and Sergi Roberto to both recover and be ready to play on Saturday.
Barcelona will welcome an Espanyol team that has only two wins this season and is in 16th place, just one point above the relegation zone.
Madrid is back in action with Carlo Ancelotti trying to recover its championship form following stumbles before the World Cup stoppage. A loss to Rayo Vallecano and a draw with Girona in two of its final three games before the break cost it the league lead.
Karim Benzema should be ready to play after his hopes of adding a world title to his Ballon d’Or award were ruined by a left thigh injury while training with France. Benzema has been hampered by injuries this season and played in just seven Spanish league games.
”We have gotten Benzema back, which is very important,” Ancelotti said on Thursday. ”A very motivated player has returned and we are convinced that he is going to give us a lot.”
Valladolid is in 12th place after winning three of its last five games.
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