Barcelona hosts Villarreal following winter break

Barcelona will look to extend its unbeaten run when the Spanish

league resumes Saturday following the winter break after having

returned from winning the Club World Cup for its sixth title of

2009.

Barcelona hosts Villarreal with 12 wins and three draws from

15 league games to lead Real Madrid by two points at the top of the

standings. Barcelona has 39 points, Madrid has 37, followed by

Sevilla on 30 and Valencia on 29.

Madrid visits Osasuna on Sunday, while troubled Atletico

Madrid faces Sevilla on Saturday.

Barcelona secured its place in football history by winning

the Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 19 to cap a

perfect year by adding to its Champions League, Spanish league,

Copa del Rey, Spanish Supercup and European Supercup titles.

Defender Daniel Alves said there is no danger of complacency

going into the new year due to coach Pep Guardiola.

“Maybe things won’t go quite so well, but we won’t relax

because (Guardiola) is always there, reminding us that winners only

keep winning with ambition,” Alves said. “We have too much

experience to relax. We’re alert and we will try to improve further

if possible.”

Villarreal could present a stiff test for Barcelona. The

ninth-place team had a disastrous start to the season when it

slipped into the relegation zone. However, it has won its last

three league games by playing the kind of quick, passing football

that has taken it into the Champions League several times in recent

years.

“After everything they’ve won, (Barcelona) are without doubt

the team to beat. The one everyone wants to beat,” Villarreal

midfielder Ariel Ibagaza said. “It’s a game that we’re motivated

for and excited about, and we’re going into it very calmly. We know

that getting anything out of it would be very important.”

Andres Iniesta could feature following his recovery from an

undisclosed injury, although defensive midfielder Yaya Toure is

away at the African Cup of Nations and Seydou Keita is in doubt due

to injury.

Atletico is 15th in the standings, two points above the

relegation zone and already out of the Champions League. Coach

Quique Sanchez Flores, appointed in October, has the task of

shoring up one of the worst defenses in the league while depending

less in attack on Sergio Aguero.

The Argentina striker has been injured throughout December,

although he could feature against Sevilla.

“We have to go out there with a winning mentality, playing at

home with a new year beginning,” Atletico midfielder Jose Antonio

Reyes said. “We must forget what happened last year and realize

that we’re a big team and we can beat anyone.”

Reyes, formerly of Sevilla, said that he will not celebrate

if he scores against his old team out of respect.

Sevilla kept up the pressure on Barcelona and Real Madrid in

the early stages of the season, and even beat Madrid. Despite

falling off the pace more recently, coach Manolo Jimenez insists

his team is “working to win a title” this season.

Brazil striker Luis Fabiano will not feature for Sevilla due

to an ankle injury.

Madrid’s Kaka has returned to training as he completes his

recovery from a groin injury, although Rafael van der Vaart will

probably cover for him against 12th-place Osasuna if the Brazilian

is ruled out.

Madrid finished the first half of the season in style,

beating Zaragoza 6-0 and finally playing the kind of football

reflecting the ?250 million ($360 million) outlay on new signings

in the offseason.

“We all agree that the team has taken a step forward,”

defender Alvaro Arbeloa said. “We’ve improved our play, we’re still

scoring lots of goals, creating chances and we’re strong at the

back.”

In other games, it’s: Valencia vs. Espanyol; Sporting Gijon

vs. Malaga; Getafe vs. Valladolid; Racing Santander vs Tenerife;

Almeria vs. Xerez; Zaragoza vs Deportivo La Coruna and Mallorca vs.

Athletic Bilbao.