Madrid aims to erase dire end to 2012 vs. Sociedad
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -Battered by poor results, dressing room strife, and now injuries, Real Madrid will return from a much-needed winter break in the Spanish league to host up-and-coming Real Sociedad on Sunday.
Madrid coach Jose Mourinho set off a firestorm of criticism in Madrid's last game of 2012 by dropping Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas. The move backfired as Madrid lost at Malaga, leaving the defending champions 16 points adrift of leader Barcelona.
On Wednesday, Madrid lost defender Pepe for a month after he had surgery on his right ankle.
"We want to have a perfect beginning to the year,'' Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo said. "Our rival is playing well, but we want to start this year better than the way we ended the last.''
Barcelona will look to extend its league-record start of 16 wins and a draw at home against crosstown rival Espanyol on Sunday, while second-place Atletico Madrid- nine points behind the leaders- visits Mallorca.
Ronaldo acknowledged that Madrid's disappointing campaign has led to problems inside the club.
"It's complicated but also normal that things are more tense when a team that is used to winning isn't playing up to the level it should,'' the Portugal forward said. "There are many factors. When things don't go well they snowball and it is gets tougher. We dropped points we shouldn't have and that has affected us.''
Ronaldo, however, failed to quash speculation about his future.
"I don't want to talk about extending my contract (past 2015). It's not important now,'' he said.
Defender Fabio Coentrao may not play after reportedly having disciplinary problems with the club, but Madrid could get striker Gonzalo Higuain back after being sidelined for two months with an injury.
Sociedad coach Philippe Montanier has his club playing its best football since he took over at the start of last season. The Basque club is undefeated in its last seven league matches, with four wins and three draws.
Sociedad's attractive attacking style is led by Mexico forward Carlos Vela and his team-high seven goals. Young French standout Antoine Griezmann and veteran homegrown playmaker Xabi Prieto add to its punch up front.
"I don't think there is any good moment to visit the Bernabeu,'' Sociedad midfielder David Zurutuza said. "But yes, if I had to choose a time it would be now, because they are missing important players.''
Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova could return to the bench after leading his first team practice on Wednesday, 13 days after having throat surgery to remove a second tumor in two years from a saliva gland.
On Thursday, Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas was cleared to play for the first time since hurting his left leg on Dec. 9. Barcelona also recovered defender Adriano and holding midfielder Alex Song from injury.
Lionel Messi ended 2012 with a record 91 goals for Barcelona and the Argentina national team. On Monday, he is the favorite to collect an unprecedented fourth FIFA Player of the Year award.
"The game will not be us against Messi. It will be 11 against 11,'' Espanyol defender Hector Moreno said. "What will matter at the end is what we are capable of doing since we will have our chances to take away a good result. We are on a good run and we want to keep it going.''
Espanyol is unbeaten in four games under new coach Javier Aguirre, including a well-deserved draw at Madrid.
Real Zaragoza hosts fifth-place Real Betis on Friday to open the 18th round.
Coach Domingos Paciencia will debut for last-place Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday at home against fourth-place Malaga.
Later, Sevilla will welcome Osasuna with coach Michel Gonzalez under increasing scrutiny to turn things around with Sevilla winless in its last five games and just four points from the relegation zone.
Also on Saturday, Levante hosts Athletic Bilbao, while Valencia is at Granada. Valladolid visits fellow promoted side Celta Vigo in Sunday's early match. Rayo Vallecano hosts Getafe in a Spanish capital derby on Monday.