Madrid look to avoid Levante repeat

It seemed like a defeat of disastrous proportions. Real Madrid's loss at Levante last season in just their third league match of the season raised serious doubts over their ability to go on and claim the Primera Division title. But defeat in the same fixture on Sunday will have far more serious repercussions.

Madrid's 1-0 reverse at the Ciutat de Valencia last term was followed by a disappointing draw at Racing Santander. All was not well at the capital club, shut out in back-to-back games and already behind Barcelona in the race for the title. But what came next for the Santiago Bernabeu side was nothing short of incredible: 10 wins in a row, before a 3-1 loss at home to the Catalans, then a further 11 victories and no more defeats in La Liga for the entire campaign. They ended champions with a new goals record after scoring 121 times in total – and with a century of points.

But other than Pep Guardiola's side, Levante had been the only team to beat Jose Mourinho's men in the Primera Division in 2011-12. Quite different to this season, then.

Madrid have already lost twice in La Liga in 2012-13 and are eight points behind Tito Vilanova's Barcelona with 10 rounds of the championship completed. Defeat on Sunday and Mourinho's men are likely to find themselves 10 adrift of Barca – and that is a mountain few will expect them to climb in the coming months.

With Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema both sidelined, Cristiano Ronaldo could be set for a move into the middle on Sunday and it is time for him to step up if he has real aspirations of claiming the Ballon d'Or at the end of the year, with Lionel Messi now the clear favourite for the game's most glamorous individual prize.

Messi was below his best in the Catalans' shock 2-1 defeat at Celtic on Wednesday night and, although he scored, will now look for a more meaningful tribute to his new-born son Thiago on Sunday, in the shape of victory at Real Mallorca.

Joaquin Caparros' side have lost their last five matches and are currently on their worst run for 20 years. So they will hardly be expected to return to winning ways on Sunday.

Barcelona, despite defeat at Celtic, lead La Liga with 28 points from their 10 games, eight more than third-placed Real and three ahead of Atletico Madrid, in second, after Diego Simeone's side lost their first match last weekend with a 2-0 defeat at Valencia.

Atletico now host Getafe in a Madrid derby on Sunday, while Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla meet in another attractive fixture on Saturday.
Those two teams had been expected to compete for a place in the Champions League this term, but both are currently outside the top four, with Sevilla in seventh and Athletic further back, in 14th, following a dismal start to the current campaign.

Both are likely to be in the mix for the final spot, however, along with Malaga, who dropped to fifth with defeat at home to Rayo Vallecano last weekend, Valencia, currently in ninth place but improving under Mauricio Pellegrino, and surprise incumbents Betis, in action on Friday night in an all-Andalusian clash against Granada.

Indeed, with the title race looking like it may be decided early, the fight for fourth could be the competition's most exciting battle of all.