Ronaldo banned as three-way title chase hots up
Real Madrid will have to do without Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo when they welcome fifth-placed Villarreal to the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday as the Portuguese misses out through suspension.
Ronaldo was sent off in his side's 1-1 draw away to Athletic Bilbao last weekend and has provisionally been banned for three La Liga games, although the suspension could be reduced as Real have announced their intention to appeal.
Those two dropped points against Athletic allowed Atletico Madrid to open up a three-point lead over both Real and Barcelona at the top the table.
However, Real were handed a timely confidence boost as they beat Atletico 3-0 on Wednesday in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final to exact revenge for defeat to Los Rojiblancos in last year's final.
Croatian Luka Modric was once again a shining light in the Real midfield in midweek and he believes the rest of his teammates will need to step up against Villarreal to compensate for the loss of Ronaldo.
"It is not fair because he didn't do anything bad, but there is nothing we can do. We all need to give more when Cristiano is not there because he is a very important player," he told the club's website.
Los Blancos should at least have Gareth Bale fit to return in place of Ronaldo.
The Welshman has missed Real's last three matches as he recovers from a calf injury, but coach Carlo Ancelotti said on Wednesday that he will start at the weekend and Modric insisted there was no need to rush his former Tottenham Hotspur teammate back into action.
"He has trained normally in the last two or three days. The coach didn't want to force him because we have another important game on Saturday and Cristiano cannot play. It is important to give him a rest because we don't have any rush."
Atletico are also in action on Saturday night as they travel to relegation-threatened Almeria.
Spanish internationals Koke and David Villa will be missing for Diego Simeone's side due to suspension and injury respectively, but Diego Ribas could make his first league start in his second loan spell at the club after crowning his return with a goal as Atletico moved top for the first time since 1996 with a 4-0 win over Real Sociedad last weekend.
It was a shock defeat for Barcelona that allowed Atletico the chance to go top as they were beaten at home in La Liga by someone other than Real Madrid for the first time since 2010, Valencia coming away from the Camp Nou with a 3-2 win.
It is the first time in 59 league games that Barca will not go into the weekend as leaders and they face another tricky game as they travel to Sevilla on Sunday.
However, former Sevilla right-back Dani Alves has criticised some of the negativity that has dogged Barca this season despite another record-breaking start to the campaign.
"It is important to win. We live with that and when you have bad results it is normal that people have doubts. The one thing we cannot do though is doubt our team or be pessimistic," he told Barca TV.
"Everyone defends the colours of their team and tries to do things as best they can, but it is always a joy to go back to Sevilla. That was my home for many years and I have a lot of respect for them."
Barca boss Gerardo Martino is likely to once again be without Brazilian forward Neymar, although he has stepped up his recovery from an ankle injury.
Defenders Jordi Alba and Javier Mascherano will also miss out as they are both suspended.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Espanyol v Granada (2000)
Valencia v Real Betis (1500), Rayo Vallecano v Malaga (1700), Real Madrid v Villarreal (1900), Almeria v Atletico Madrid (2100)
Osasuna v Getafe (1100), Valladolid v Elche (1600), Real Sociedad v Levante (1800), Sevilla v Barcelona (2000)
Celta Vigo v Athletic Bilbao (2100)