LaLiga Matchday 15: Barca back in action against Espanyol
Barcelona are top of LaLiga upon the resumption of club football — and they will be determined to keep Real Madrid at arm's length when they face Espanyol on Matchday 15.
Los Blancos are travelling to face Real Valladolid, who are enjoying a solid start to the season and reside comfortably in mid-table.
In the race for a Champions League place, Real Betis host Athletic Bilbao on Thursday and Real Sociedad take on Osasuna on Saturday.
Villarreal and Valencia also do battle in the Derbi de la Comunitat.
Game of the week: Barcelona vs Espanyol (Saturday, 1pm)
Barcelona have not lost a LaLiga encounter with city rivals Espanyol since February 2009, when current coach Xavi was in his prime as a midfielder, which is a run of 24 games.
The Catalan giants are two points clear of Real Madrid and underpinning their success is a mean defence.
No team across Europe's top five leagues has kept more clean sheets than their 11, while Espanyol have managed just two.
Xavi's side boast the top scorer in Spanish football in Robert Lewandowski, who has been cleared to play after Barca secured a temporary injunction in a Madrid court to put his three-match ban on hold.
Real Valladolid vs Real Madrid (Friday, 8.30pm)
Real Madrid are keen to regain top spot in LaLiga and the battle to do so resumes as they take on 12th-placed Real Valladolid.
Valladolid's record against Los Blancos leaves a lot to be desired — they have failed to beat the reigning champions in their last 13 meetings. If that becomes 14, it will be their longest-ever winless streak against the Madrid giants.
But the hosts are in good form — they have won three of their last four matches either side of the World Cup break and look on course to secure a solid mid-table finish this season.
Vinicius Junior and Federico Valverde (six) are the leading goalscorers for Carlo Ancelotti's men in LaLiga this term and the Italian coach will hope his key men will return fit and firing from the global showpiece in Qatar.
Real Betis vs Athletic Bilbao (Thursday, 6.15pm)
The battle for a Champions League place in LaLiga is as competitive as ever — and two sides with designs on finishing in the top four will face off when Real Betis host Athletic Bilbao.
Both sides are level on 24 points but Athletic are fourth and Los Verdiblancos are sixth due to their goal difference. The latter have conceded fewer goals (12 to 14) but the former have scored more (24 to 17).
Betis beat the Basque outfit the last time these two teams met but that is the only occasion they have won in their last six clashes with them. They last won consecutive games against them a decade ago — back in August 2012.
Athletic playmaker Iker Muniain has created 71 chances in LaLiga in 2022 — more than any other player. He will be key for Ernesto Valverde's side — just like Borja Iglesias, with eight goals to his name, will be for Betis.
Real Sociedad vs Osasuna (Saturday, 3.15pm)
Real Sociedad return to action in good shape — Imanol Alguacil's side are currently third in the table and will look to consolidate that when they face Osasuna.
The visitors are enjoying a strong campaign themselves — they sit seventh, just three points behind La Real.
Sociedad are unbeaten in their last 13 games against Los Rojillos — they have won three on the bounce against them and have done so without conceding a single goal.
If they want to extend that record, the sterling work of Mikel Merino in the hosts' midfield will be key — nobody in LaLiga has recovered possession more times than his 96.
Conversely, Chimy Avila's goals will be integral if Osasuna are to emerge victorious — he already has six to his name this season.
Villarreal vs Valencia (Saturday, 3.15pm)
Villarreal and Valencia are neck-and-neck in LaLiga — the former are ninth while the latter are 10th. This means that not only is their Matchday 15 clash a regional derby — it also has positional ramifications.
The Yellow Submarine boast a better defence than Los Che — conceding fewer goals (10 to 15) — but it is Valencia who are more prolific in front of goal (22 to 15).
Villarreal are unbeaten in their last five league games against Valencia at La Ceramica and have won all of the most recent three.
Quique Setien's men have hit a patchy run of form, however, losing three of their last five LaLiga games before the World Cup break.
Setien — appointed to replace the Aston Villa-bound Unai Emery — has gotten off to a rocky start while Gennaro Gattuso, conversely, is making steady progress at the Mestalla.
The weekend’s other games
Girona vs Rayo Vallecano (Thursday, 4pm)
Atletico Madrid vs Elche (Thursday, 8.30pm)
Getafe vs Mallorca (Friday, 4pm)
Cadiz vs Almeria (Friday, 6.15pm)
Celta Vigo vs Sevilla (Friday, 6.15pm)
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