Barcelona expect to have coach Tito Vilanova back on the sidelines as they return to La Liga action with Sunday’s derby against Espanyol. The 44-year-old returned to the training ground in the past week just two weeks after an operation to remove a reoccurrence of a tumor on his salivary gland.
But, with the Christmas break, Vilanova will have missed just one game, despite still undergoing chemotherapy. It is a double boost for Barcelona with full-back Eric Abidal also back in training after his own battle with cancer.
Goalkeeper Victor Valdes has spoken of what the pair’s presence has done for the squad.
[They] are examples for everybody,” he said, according to Barcelona’s official website. “As people, for their personal challenges and as a team mate and a coach—not just because of what they have gone through but because they give everything for this team. They give us so much strength and energy.”
Barcelona are enjoying a record-breaking first-half of the campaign, having only dropped two points in their first 17 La Liga fixtures.
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Despite their nine point lead over Atletico Madrid and 16 point advantage over Real Madrid, Valdes has said that Barcelona are taking nothing for granted as they take on neighbors Espanyol.
“It is always an important match, whether at home or in Cornella, especially for the local players, who are so used to matches against Espanyol,” he explained.
“But the game is not only a big one in terms of local bragging rights, because the Liga campaign is anything but done and dusted. “We haven’t even reached halfway yet. We do have a good lead on the teams in second and third, but it’s not at all a definitive one. There is a lot left to play for and a lot of points at stake.”
Valdes has said that he will be fit for the encounter, despite still recovering from a foot injury. Barcelona will have Cesc Fabregas, Adriano and Alex Song all back from injury for Sunday’s match at the Camp Nou.
Espanyol have endured a difficult campaign, but they recorded just their third win of the season, against Deportivo La Coruna, last time out in a potentially crucial bottom of the table clash. That was the first victory under new coach Javier Aguirre, but the side is also unbeaten in four league outings under the Mexican’s charge.
Espanyol will be forced to make do without Mubarak Wakaso, who has departed for the African Cup of Nations with Ghana.
D: Adriano, Puyol, Pique, Alba
M: Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas
F: Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
D: Lopez. Colotto, Moreno, Capdevila
M: Forlin, Sanchez
Alfonso, Verdu, Simao
Prediction: Espanyol have been on a much better run of late and with the team likely to raise their game against their local illustrious rivals, they could give Barcelona a sterner test than many expect. However, with an almost fully fit squad and the emotional boost of Vilanova’s return, Barcelona should maintain their near-impeccable start to the campaign.
Barcelona 3-1 Espanyol
Where to watch: The La Liga clash will kick-off at 1 p.m. ET, with coverage provided by beIN Sport. A live stream, which you view at your own discretion, will be available here.