MADRID (AFP) - Real Madrid play host to
Barcelona on Sunday with, as usual, a huge amount at stake in one of the
bitterest derby matches in the world of club football.
Both teams desperately want to win, at the
very least to keep their super-critical fans happy, but there is much more
at stake than just pride.
Real lie second in the table with 70 points
from 33 games, and five still to go, and are only behind league leaders
Valencia on goal difference.
However, a draw or worse against Barca, who
have not won in the Santiago Bernabeu since 1997, would hand Valencia, the
UEFA Cup semi-finalists and 2001-2002 champions, the advantage in the race
for the title.
The job of Real coach Carlos Queiroz is also
on the line after the reigning Spanish champions' recent series of setbacks,
which have included losing the Spanish Cup final, losing 3-0 at home to
Osasuna and going out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage.
"Each game has become Real Madrid against
the rest of the world," said Queiroz on Thursday, acknowledging his critics
and the mounting pressure.
"But at least this has had the affect of
bringing the team together and concentrating the mind," added the Portuguese
By contrast, his opposite number Frank
Rijkaard is a relatively happy man.
In December, when Real went to the Nou Camp
and notched up their first win there in 20 years with a 2-1 win, the Barca
fans were calling for the Dutchman's head.
Now, after a 15-match unbeaten streak, Barca
have risen to third although they are still seven points behind the leading
"I think we have demonstrated to the world
that in our current form we can win in Madrid. Madrid is fighting for the
title but we have not given up yet either," Rijkaard said on Thursday.
"We didn't win games at the start of the
season when our squad was thrown out of its rhythm by the demands of various
national teams but we now have high hopes of success and these should
continue," added Rijkaard.
Rijkaard's words were a clear warning that
although they may end this season without a trophy, he has built a Barca
side capable of returning to its former heights after several barren seasons.
Real will have Ronaldo, the Spanish first
division's leading scorer, back to lead the attack after he missed Sunday's
2-1 derby win at Atletico Madrid with a minor thigh injury.
However, Queiroz will have to fill a gap in
the centre of the defence owing to the suspension of Francisco Pavon.
Queiroz is expected to put Ivan Helguera
alongside his fellow Spanish international Raul Bravo in the middle of the
back four and recall Jose Maria Gutierrez to accompany England captain David
Beckham in midfield.
Rijkaard's main injury worry concerns Carlos
Puyol. The Spanish international defender will have a late fitness test on
his strained left hamstring.
The match will also see the derby debut of
Ronaldinho. The Brazilian missed the first encounter this season due to an
Almost ignored in the frenzy over the derby,
league leaders Valencia travel to fifth-placed Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Valencia coach Rafa Benitez will be waiting
to see the effects of Thursday's UEFA Cup semi-final stalemate against
Villarreal before naming a team but he will probably resist adopting his
usual policy of rotating his squad.
"Winning the league still remains in our
hands so it is our job to make sure it doesn't slip through our fingers,"
said Benitez earlier this week.
However, Athletic will not to be too
accommodating as they are still chasing a place in next season's UEFA Cup.