Barça kicks off with Catalan derby

Guardiola's side must travel to Cornellà while Valencia plays Villarreal

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, fresh from being named manager of the year for 2011 by the largely irrelevant International Federation of Football History and Statistics, faces a tricky task on his first evening back in Liga action in 2012. The fixture computer has thrown a Catalan derby at Cornellà-El Prat into Barcelona's path as a rude reintroduction to the league after Guardiola's team stretched its legs in a routine 4-0 drubbing of Osasuna in the King's Cup midweek.

Guardiola should be able to recall Andrés Iniesta to the starting line-up after the Manchegan midfielder's recent injury while his opposite number, Mauricio Pochettino, has his Ivory Coast star Ndri Romaric at his disposal as the former Sevilla player was surprisingly omitted from The Elephants' Africa Cup of Nations squad. Espanyol will be hoping to bounce back from a 2-1 cup defeat against second division Córdoba during the week.

Also aiming to put cup matters behind it is Real Madrid, which fell two goals down against Málaga in a woeful first half at the Bernabéu before staging a comeback in the second half to win 3-2. José Mourinho said after the game that he would have substituted all 11 players at half time if he could, later smoothing any ruffled feathers by stating that the players hauled off were not singled out for special admonishment, although Álvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Coentrão have been omitted from the squad to face Granada on Saturday.

Real is defending a three-point lead over Barcelona in a two-way battle for the title that will probably rumble on until May due to a dearth of genuine challengers in La Liga at present. Mourinho has stated that he values a league win above any other trophy this season and found time to congratulate Guardiola on his latest gong. "It's deserved. I just hope that Pep doesn't have to wait to get his because I won it in 2010 and they still haven't given it to me."

Elsewhere, Valencia will aim to tighten its grip on third by driving another nail into the coffin of Villarreal's season in a coastal derby. The Yellow Submarine is only out of the relegation places by dint of a goal difference advantage of one over Sporting and new coach José Francisco Molina faces an uphill battle to motivate a squad with little in the way of tangible reward lying ahead; last month Villarreal was still playing in the Champions League, albeit with no chance of progression, and the King's Cup. Molina will not be unaware that Villarreal is only 10 points adrift of the Europa League places in a tightly packed Liga. Qualification for that tournament at least will be required to persuade the likes of Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi to stick around for another season but a match against Valencia, which beat Sevilla 1-0 in the first leg of their cup tie on Thursday, is hardly the ideal place to start.

Another coach making his first touchline appearance is Atlético's Diego Simeone, who does not face quite the conundrum of Molina but rather will be expected to lift the air of stagnant mediocrity hanging over the Calderón. His first match is an away day at Málaga, which will be looking to lift itself into the European places with a win.

Pep Guardiola faces a tricky tie as he aims to make up three points on Real.
Pep Guardiola faces a tricky tie as he aims to make up three points on Real.LLUIS GENE (AFP)

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