After watching Barcelona cope ably with the distraction of political tension sweeping across Spain in recent weeks, it is Real Madrid’s turn to head into the eye of the storm on Sunday when they travel to Girona.
It is the European champions’ first trip to Catalonia since violence marred a separatist called independence referendum for the region on October 1 that has sparked weeks of political chaos.
The atmosphere surrounding Real’s first ever top-flight visit to Girona, a heartland of pro-independence support, could be further intensified should the Spanish government follow through with plans this weekend to seize Catalonia’s autonomous powers in an attempt to stave off a declaration of independence.
But the protagonists insist they are preparing solely with the 90 minutes on the pitch in mind. “We will have the security there as always to play a football match, nothing more,” said Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane.
“We are thinking solely about the match as always and not about what could happen around it.” As is normal on trips to Catalonia, Real will not use their official team bus for fear of reprisals.
“It won’t be the first time that this has happened and there is no need to give it any further importance,” Real’s Director of Institutional Relations, Emilio Butragueno, told Spanish sports daily Marca.
“Real Madrid are a football club and we will only talk about the football – that is all we focus on, to win and to make our fans happy.” Fresh from picking up FIFA’s award for the best player of 2017, Cristiano Ronaldo will be one of number of Real stars to return after being rested for Real’s Copa del Rey last 32, first leg at third-tier Fuenlabrada on Thursday.
Gareth Bale once again misses out through injury, although there is hope the Welshman could return from a calf problem in time to face his old side Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Political distractions aside, Real remain in need of the points in Girona in their chase of Barcelona, who travel to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday hoping to open up an eight-point lead over their rivals.
Barca boss Ernesto Valverde returns to San Mames for the first time since swapping Bilbao for Barcelona in June. “No matter where you have made your career or where you have played, everyone has the club they are most defined by and mine clearly is Athletic,” Valverde told Barcelona’s website.
“The first time you go back you try to concentrate on your own team because if you go around shaking hands with everyone you forget there is a game and three very important points at stake.”
Valverde’s influence at both Barca and Athletic has been noted in the first few months of the campaign. Whilst the Catalans have won 12 and drawn one of their last 13 games in all competitions, the Basques have just one win in 11 and have slipped to 11th in the table.
Atletico Madrid are better-placed just six points back on Barcelona in fourth, but have been dogged by a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal all season as they await the return of club record signing Diego Costa in January.
“It is the same thing as always, our lack of efficiency in front of goal doesn’t give us the calm we need. We don’t score the goals and, in the end, we suffer,” midfielder Saul Niguez said after Atletico were held 1-1 by third-tier Elche in the Cup on Wednesday.
By contrast, Atletico’s rock solid defence comes up against the most in-form striker in the league on Saturday as Cedric Bakambu’s Villarreal visit the Wanda Metropolitano.
Bakambu has scored six times in his last three La Liga outings to lift Villarreal to sixth. “Three points against Villarreal will put us back in a good position and the dynamic of the group will change,” added Saul. -AFP