Real Madrid will close the gap at the top of La Liga to just three points if they secure a victory at Espanyol on Sunday. A draw between Spain’s top two, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, has given Madrid a vital opportunity to eat into their five point disadvantage that they can surely not afford to miss, with so few points dropped by their rivals in the first half of the campaign. Coach Carlo Ancelotti is intent on reaching the halfway point of the campaign with a third-straight victory in what he realizes will be one of the toughest title races in recent memory.
“For us, it's very important to end the first half of the season with a victory,” he said, according to Spanish sports daily AS. “Espanyol is not an easy side to face and they are particularly dangerous when they're at home”.
“To win this league campaign, we have to battle against some very strong sides. The season which Barcelona are putting in is nothing new, but Atletico have surprised by how well they are performing in the League and Champions League. To win this season's league title, you have to outperform both of them.”
After a 3-0 win over Celta Vigo to start 2014, Madrid beat Osasuna 2-0 in the first leg of their Copa del Rey last-16 tie in midweek. Both results were helped by the performances of young forward Jese, who continued his fine form that has seen him become an ever more influential part of the squad. One man to suffer from his emergence has been fellow Madrid youth product Alvaro Morata. With the 21-year-old’s playing time increasingly limited, he has voiced his feelings about potentially having to seek a move elsewhere. But, despite that and the reported interest of Arsenal, Ancelotti insists that Morata is going nowhere in this month’s transfer window.
“I haven't spoken to him about that,” he said. “There hasn't been any enquiries about him nut if any club comes along to ask us about his situation, the answer is simple and clear: he's not for sale, he's not going anywhere.”
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Madrid will again be without Raphael Varane, Fabio Coentrao and long-term absentee Sami Khedira for the trip to Barcelona. However, Ancelotti has confirmed that Xabi Alonso will come back into the squad. The midfielder, who signed a new two-year contract this week, has still been bothered of late by the effects of a burst eardrum.
Madrid’s opponents, Espanyol, have had a poor start to 2014, having followed up their league loss at Osasuna with a defeat to Segunda Division side Alcorcon in the Copa del Rey in midweek. Their Mexican coach Javier Aguirre will be unable to call upon the services of Sergio Garcia, who is ruled out through suspension.
Where to watch: The Spanish Primera Division encounter will kick off at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. Coverage will be provided by beIN Sports, with a live stream available on beIN Sports Play.