Winter has finally arrived in Spain, and La Liga has but three rounds of fixtures to play before the traditional winter break — although break is a bit of euphemism as money-spinning friendlies are often on the festive calendar. For several teams, those three fixtures are vital to the season as a whole. Villarreal, in particular, faces Málaga this weekend before a trip to Camp Nou and the visit of newly destructive Sevilla.
Currently fourth, the Yellow Submarine's Champions League credentials will be tested to the limit between now and Christmas. Marcelino's slick passing side has a decent cushion between it and Real Sociedad, recently knocked out of Europe, in sixth. But Athletic, without producing anything spectacular, is breathing down Villarreal's neck in fifth, a single point the distance between the two.
While Villarreal very much holds its fate in its own hands, Barcelona can certainly lend it another at San Mamés where the Lions of Bilbao will aim to repeat the result of the culé's last two visits, when the points were shared. Ernesto Valverde has made Athletic a solid unit again after its collapse in Marcelo Bielsa's bizarre second season, and the return to fitness of Ander Herrera and Aritz Aduriz should add a little spark to the side.
Herrera scored in both 2-2 ties played out in Bilbao over the past two seasons and believes the home side can provide the visitor with an uncomfortable afternoon. "We have the ability to play much better. With confidence and good results, excellence will come, to put it one way. It's unlikely Barcelona will slip up twice in a week, but that's up to us," the midfielder said.
Gerardo Martino's side lost to Ajax in the Champions League midweek and will look to bounce back immediately at the expense of Athletic, despite a lengthy injury list including Leo Messi and first-choice goalkeeper Víctor Valdés. "We're limping a bit but that's no excuse," said Cesc Fàbregas ahead of the game. "On Sunday people will see the reaction of the team."
Rayo and Betis can also kick-start their seasons before the stoppage, not least when they meet each other in Madrid in the Sunday midday kick-off. Betis is rock bottom of La Liga on nine points and licking its wounds after a 4-0 thrashing by city rival Sevilla last weekend. Rayo is one place better off, with 12 points but the worst defensive record in the division of 34 goals conceded.
Only Betis, traditionally goal shy Osasuna and a resilient Granada have scored fewer than Paco Jémez's side, which was thumped 4-1 at home by Espanyol in its last outing. Rayo is also the only team in the top flight not to have shared the points this season, winning four and losing 10. The side from the capital plays Granada next week while Betis has Real Sociedad and 18th-placed Almería on its horizon as it battles to prevent its season from going further downhill.
"If we win we will be out of the relegation zone and although it's not definitive because there is a long way to go it would be a massive step in the right direction," said Jémez. "It would also put Betis in a very complicated situation but for us this is a match that represents hope and motivation."