Barcelona travel to third-placed Valencia on Wednesday in the highlight of a La Liga round spread across three days.
Barca, who top the league by seven points ahead of Real Madrid, are 17 points clear of Valencia and remarkably have lost just one game this season – at home to newly promoted Hercules back in September.
But it would not surprise if Barcelona’s second loss of the season did come against Valencia, who have not lost a league fixture since Real Madrid beat them 2-0 at the Bernabeu in early December.
Valencia have lost just once at home this season and are coming off a big 2-1 away win at Athletic Bilbao, who are also challenging for a European spot, which saw them four points clear of Villarreal in third position, one of the automatic qualification spots into the Champions League.
“With perseverance we beat a big rival at a very difficult venue, and for that we must be doubly pleased,” Valencia coach Unai Emery said.
When quizzed on the midweek fixture against Barca, Emery said his side need to approach the game ‘with enthusiasm and a need to defend third place’.
Pep Guardiola’s side enter the match after a 3-0 away win at Mallorca on Saturday and keen to extend their lead on Real, but they will need the likes of Lionel Messi (26 league goals this season) and former Valencia striker David Villa (17) to be at their best.
Xavi and Jeffren returned to training on Monday and could make returns from injury for Barca but goalkeeper Victor Valdes and defender Carles Puyol will miss the clash, while Valencia’s top scorer Aduriz, who has struck nine La Liga goals this season, will not play any part due to injury.
Relegation-threatened Malaga are rank outsiders when they travel to Real Madrid on Thursday but despite the club sitting second last, they can take heart from a four-match unbeaten run.
They will face a fired-up Real side determined to gain revenge for a 0-0 draw at Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday, with a victory helping keep the pressure on Barcelona.
A victory for Espanyol on Tuesday against Mallorca would see them nudge to within four points of fourth-placed Villarreal while the other match on Tuesday sees Sevilla take on strugglers Sporting Gijon.
Real Zaragoza and Getafe host Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid respectively on Wednesday while Hercules travel to Villarreal and Osasuna host Deportivo La Coruna.
Real Sociedad clash with Levante also on Wednesday while Racing Santander travel to bottom-of-the-table Almeria on Thursday.