The fixtures are coming thick and fast in La Liga to accommodate the winter break, with match week 11 starting on Tuesday after the previous round of fixtures was brought to an end shortly before midnight on Monday, when Athletic Bilbao leapfrogged Getafe into fifth place with a 0-1 win at Coliseum Alfonso Pérez.
That leaves little time for smaller squads to recover game-to-game, but for the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid it presents a chance for coaches Carlo Ancelotti and Gerardo Martino to deploy the fringes of their bloated rosters. In Real's case, that might mean some minutes for Isco, the summer signing who started the season in flying form but has recently been consigned to a watching brief, and some game time for the returning Xabi Alonso.
The Basque midfield anchorman has not played this season after breaking a bone in his foot on August 21, but is back in full training, which is good news for Ancelotti. The Italian has yet to settle on his preferred formation, but there is little doubt that the hugely experienced Alonso is the missing piece of the jigsaw. Real has looked vulnerable at the back on many occasions this season and has not quite adjusted to Ancelotti's dictum of holding on to the ball. Alonso will provide a much-needed air of authority and poise to the side.
That will be handy on Wednesday (Canal+, 10pm) against a Sevilla side showing signs of improvement under Unai Emery, and with arguably the league's top performer outside the big two and Atlético so far this season, Ivan Rakitic, in its ranks. The Croat has scored 30 percent of all Sevilla's goals this season and chipped in with two assists, winning four man-of-the-match awards in the process. However, Sevilla has struggled on the road, winning just once, and although Real is wounded after its 2-1 clásico loss in Barcelona on Saturday, there will be plenty of bite in whoever Ancelotti fields, although he may choose not to experiment with his formation quite as much as he did at Camp Nou.
It will be a special game for me against Barça; but we will play to win" Celta coach Luis Enrique
On Tuesday Barcelona travels to Celta Vigo, which scored a confidence-boosting 5-0 victory over Málaga at the weekend. The visitor is also a team in flux, with a new coach trying to impose a few tactical tweaks to a side still addicted to the passing game it has used to such devastating effect in recent seasons. Still, much like Real, the resources at Gerardo Martino's disposal are such that an ostensible "B" team would be enough to beat most of the other sides in La Liga. Celta, though, is coached by former Camp Nou favorite Luis Enrique, who cut his coaching teeth in the club's La Masia academy.
"It will be a special game for me, of course," Luis Enrique said Monday. "To have a chance to win, they have to have an off day and we have to be at our best. A game can be won in many ways. I'd like to have the ball more than Barcelona but it's difficult. Still, we're not going to play for a tie; we'll go in to the game with a winning mentality."
Atlético, which also racked up a 5-0 win — over Real Betis — travels to Granada on Thursday in search of its 10th win in 11 games to keep the pressure on league leader Barcelona. Diego Simeone, usually a volatile and animated figure on the touchline, spent much of Sunday night's match in the Calderón with his hands in his pockets and a broad smile on his face. Little wonder, when it took Atlético 13 seconds to open the scoring, adding the fifth in second-half stoppage time. A coach can hardly ask for a more complete display of drive and desire, and in Diego Costa and David Villa he has a strike force that most European heavyweight clubs would happily take off of those pocketed palms. Costa leads the Liga scoring chart with 11, three more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi, while Villa helped himself to a couple against Betis to end his own mini-drought.
Bottom-placed Almería, the only side in the division yet to win a game, visits Mestalla where a thoroughly deflated Valencia will aim to put the Liga new boys to the sword. The suspicion is that all is still not entirely peachy at the club, where a player revolt against coach Miroslav Djukic has been widely reported. A 4-1 weekend loss to local rival Villarreal did little to ease concerns for the state of the Mestalla outfit, which might just fall apart entirely if Almería claims its first full complement of points.