Real Madrid can prove their title hunger as Bale returns vs. Espanyol
After the hype of a promising performance in the 3-1 Champions League round-of-16 win against Napoli, La Liga is set to return to the Santiago Bernabeu. On Saturday, Real Madrid host Espanyol in the first of three very important matches in the title fight next week.
After Espanyol, Zinedine Zidane's team travels to Valencia on Wednesday -- one of the two games they still have in hand -- and Villarreal on Sunday. Both away fixtures look like tough but winnable outings if the squad are as focused and determined as they were on Wednesday night against Napoli.
Madrid's rivals' calendars are not easy, either; although Barcelona host Leganes on Sunday in what should be a calming home match, they are then due to travel to Atletico Madrid's Vicente Calderon next Sunday. Sevilla, in third place, play against the surprising Eibar on Saturday before crossing the city to visit Real Betis in the always eventful Sevilla derby the following weekend.
If Real Madrid maintain or increase the current gap over their competitors, taking advantage of that pending match, the La Liga title will be a bit closer. The first step is defeating Espanyol, who have not won at the Bernabeu since 1996 when Jordi Lardin, now a member of Espanyol's management team, scored twice to shock Madrid. However, the team now coached by Quique Sanchez Flores looks a lot more threatening than they have in the past few campaigns.
Indeed, it took Espanyol some time to gel after the season started, as the new coach got to work and the new faces in the squad learned how to play with each other. Now that the integration period is over, Espanyol possess quite an interesting mixture of youth and experience and the results prove that the approach is working.
In their past 16 matches, Espanyol have won seven, drawn six and lost only three. Those three defeats -- against Barcelona, Real Sociedad and Valencia -- are easy to explain, and the club's consistency vs. their remaining rivals looks impressive.
That stability starts in goal: former Real Madrid keeper Diego Lopez is playing as well as he ever has, not only saving shots and taking care of high crosses, but also giving his back four huge doses of calm and balance. In the right-back position, 21-year-old Marc Navarro has impressed in the past month, though he suffered a muscular injury and won't be able to start at the Bernabeu. That spot is probably Sanchez Flores' biggest concern, as his other options -- Javi Lopez and Diego Reyes -- have not played much in that position.
But Espanyol's main source of strength comes from their midfield and forwards. Pape Diop and Javi Fuego are as intense and physical as they come in the defensive-midfield positions, while the skilled Jose Manuel Jurado, the hard-working Hernan Perez and the always unpredictable Jose Antonio Reyes offer plenty of inventiveness in the attacking-midfield spots. Up front, local kid Gerard Moreno can fool the most experienced of defenders. In all truth, his seven goals in 20 matches this season do not tell the whole story of his outstanding performances. On the bench, well-known names like Felipe Caicedo, Pablo Piatti and Salva Sevilla can help when required.
Espanyol's positive results have to do with this relative wealth of talent and experience, and in this case it can be said that their new owner Chen Yansheng has brought stability to a club that badly needed some.
Real Madrid, armed with optimism after their midweek performance, now have almost their full squad available. Gareth Bale has trained with his teammates and is set to make his return from injury vs. Espanyol, according to Zidane.
Sergio Ramos will sit this one out in order to recover from a knock on his hip. Danilo and Fabio Coentrao did not train on Thursday, but could play if needed, although this is indeed not the case, as Marcelo and Daniel Carvajal are back in shape and Nacho Fernandez could step in if Zidane feels either needs a rest.
Judging by the end of Wednesday's match, it's likely that the manager will rotate some starters. Among others, Luka Modric looked especially exhausted, and there are plenty of midfielders who would love to get some playing time at home. James Rodriguez enjoyed his comeback against Napoli, but Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez could also feature on Saturday.
If Real Madrid maintain their intensity, February could prove to be a key month to increase their advantage and create a comfortable margin ahead of the final weeks of the season. It all depends on whether or not Zidane is able to keep his squad motivated and focused for each and every match.
This past Wednesday we saw how much Real Madrid want another victory in the Champions League. Saturday's fixture against Espanyol will be a good test of how hungry they are for the La Liga title.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.