Madrid: Barcelona expect to have coach Tito Vilanova back at the helm following cancer surgery as they return to league action after the winter break with a local derby against Espanyol on Sunday.
Although news that Vilanova had a recurrence of a tumour on a saliva gland sent shockwaves around the Catalan club, the impact has been limited by the stoppage over Christmas.
After a successful operation he has missed just one game, an away victory against Valladolid where his assistant Jordi Roura took charge and Barcelona extended their record start to the campaign to 16 wins from 17 games in La Liga.
Vilanova returned to the training ground this week where fullback Eric Abidal, who has had his own battle with cancer, is also on the comeback trail.
“Tito and Abidal are both examples of fighting spirit. They are examples to follow for all that they have been through and yet at the same time they have always been there to help the club and their teammates,” said keeper Victor Valdes.
“They give us a big boost and the energy to keep going season after season and to continue the success. We all hope that they are well and happy.
“We now have a derby game and they are always important at home or away but for those of us who are from here we are used to facing Espanyol. On a professional level it is a big match and we will give them full respect.
“There is still a long way to go in the title race as we haven’t even finished the first half of the season although we do have a good lead. It is a very competitive league and there are a lot of points at stake.”
Real Madrid have fallen 16 points behind Barcelona and will now have to field a makeshift defence against Real Sociedad with Pepe, Marcelo, Raul Albiol and Fabio Coentrao all injured and Sergio Ramos suspended.
The decision to drop keeper Iker Casillas in the final game of 2012 against Malaga reinforced rumours that Jose Mourinho had lost the support of key figures in the dressing room.
Pepe further antagonised the situation by telling the press in his home country that the Portuguese players in Spain were victimised.
Sergio Ramos has since tried to ease the atmosphere at the Bernabeu. “When things are not going well it is necessary to be more united. I’ve know Iker for years and we are good friends. I don’t think it is strange what happened (that he was dropped) as it is the job of the captain of a ship to take decisions,” he said.
“We are on the right track, everyone’s attitude has been good and there is no reason to complain. Our job now is to keep fighting for the title.”
Atletico Madrid lead the pursuit of Barca, lying nine points behind, and they are now away to Mallorca while Malaga, in fourth, just two points off Real Madrid, are away to bottom side Deportivo La Coruna.
Real Betis have been one of the major surprises so far and will look to continue their strong start away to Zaragoza while Levante aim to bounce back against Athletic Bilbao with their defeat away to Rayo Vallecano their first in four games.
Valencia and Sevilla, who face Granada and Osasuna respectively, are both used to being higher up the table and will be hoping for an upturn in fortunes this year.
Elsewhere, Celta Vigo take on Valladolid and Rayo Vallecano play Getafe.