Iniesta, Benzema scheduled to return
Barcelona and Real Madrid expect key players to be available for Spanish league play this weekend, with Andres Iniesta set to return to the Spanish champion’s squad Saturday against winless Racing Santander.
Iniesta is training again after injuring his left leg in a Champions League game against AC Milan last month and the Spain international’s return could give Barcelona a boost with Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and Ibrahim Afellay all injured.
Barcelona is joint-top of the table with early season surprise Levante, which plays Malaga on Sunday.
Real Madrid, one point behind the co-leaders, hosts Real Betis Saturday with Karim Benzema, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao set to return. Defenders Raul Albiol and Ricardo Carvalho are injured.
European champion Barcelona is unbeaten so far this season and has players steadily returning from injury. Nonetheless, rumors have continued to circulate in Spanish media about Pep Guardiola leaving at the end of the season, fueled by comments from the Barcelona coach that he thinks about stepping down ”every day.”
That prompted chairman Sandro Rosell to call Guardiola ”the best coach in the history of the club” amid assurances that ”everything possible” would be done to convince him to stay.
Guardiola’s players have also been quick to rally round.
”I don’t want to put any pressure on Guardiola, he will do things at his own tempo, like he has done every year,” defender Gerard Pique said. ”He has always signed a new deal, though, and I believe he’ll do so again this year. He loves his job here and the players believe in him.”
Despite the speculation, Racing coach Hector Cuper, formerly in charge at Valencia and Inter Milan, is under no illusions about the scale of the task facing his team at the Nou Camp.
”Since I’ve been in the football world I’ve never seen anything like (Barcelona). It’s the best team in the world and a long way ahead of the others,” Cuper said. ”I’ve always said that perfection does not exist, but this Barcelona team is the closest I’ve seen.”
Since Guardiola took over in 2008, Barcelona has played 60 home games in the league, drawing six and losing just three – though Racing is among the teams who have taken at least a point from a visit to the Nou Camp in that time.
Racing’s best hope may hinge on Guardiola deciding to rest some of his stars. With players returning from a double-header of international fixtures, Barcelona now faces a run of seven games in 23 days.
The fixture congestion could tempt the Barcelona coach into giving the likes of Lionel Messi a rest against a Racing side that has made a winless start to the season, taking just four points from six games.
Third-place Real Madrid will look to keep up the pressure in its home game against newly promoted Betis.
Betis has made an impressive return to the top flight – winning its first four matches to briefly top the table before losing its next two – and striker Ruben Castro said possession would be the key against Madrid.
”You beat Real Madrid by having the ball and not losing it in the center of the pitch,” he said. ”You need to have an excellent game and avoid letting them hit you on the counterattack.”
Center back Albiol joins Carvalho on the sidelines for Madrid after breaking his left cheekbone in Spain training on Sunday, though Portugal defenders Pepe and Coentrao are back in training after missing their country’s Euro 2012 qualifying matches.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s fitness also carries a question mark after the forward missed training to rest niggling muscle injuries following Portugal’s 2-1 loss at Denmark.
Separating the two traditional powers is Levante, which hosts big-spending Malaga, a club eyeing European qualification at least this season.
Levante trails Barcelona on goal difference, while Malaga, whose owner Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani spent ?60 million ($85 million) on new players in the offseason, is just a point further back in fourth.
Brazil striker Julio Baptista, who scored a spectacular bicycle kick to seal a 3-2 win in stoppage time against Getafe last time out, is a doubt for Malaga with a right foot injury.
In other matches Saturday, it’s: Getafe vs. Villarreal; Granada vs. Atletico Madrid; and Mallorca vs. Valencia.
Also Sunday, it’s: Rayo Vallecano vs. Espanyol; Sevilla vs. Sporting Gijon; and Zaragoza vs. Real Sociedad.
Athletic Bilbao hosts Osasuna on Monday.