Real Madrid will be looking to maintain or extended its La Liga lead in a home clash with Malaga on Sunday. The Blancos currently lead El Clasico rival Barcelona by 10 points with just 12 fixtures left for Barca to make up ground.
Due to all of the Champions League drama, Madrid hasn't received enough credit for its tremendous campaign. The Blancos have only dropped eight points season. They are also on an 11-match league winning streak since losing a game against Barcelona all the way back in early December.
Malaga won't go away easy, however. After finishing in 11th place last season, the Boquerones are fighting for a European spot, so they'll have plenty of motivation heading into the match. Picking up at least a point against Real Madrid would provide a boost mentally for the stretch run.
Where: Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, Spain
When: Sunday, March 18 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Watch: Gol TV USA and ESPN3.com
Betting Odds: Real Madrid -625, Malaga +1260, Draw +565
Player to Watch for Real Madrid: Karim Benzema
The most amazing thing about Benzema has been his ability to produce goals no matter what role Jose Mourinho decides to use him in. Whether he's in the starting lineup alongside Cristiano Ronaldo or coming off the bench, he doesn't complain and just keeps finding ways to make things happen.
It's resulted in 13 goals and five assists for the 24-year-old French star. He's been on fire lately, finding the net four times over the last five games. If he's able to maintain that form, there's no way Barcelona will be able to chase down Real Madrid.
He's come in as a sub in each of the past two games, both Blancos victories, so Mourinho would be wise to keep things the same. Benzema provides a nice spark when he comes on.
Player to Watch for Malaga: Rondon
Malaga wouldn't be in such a promising position if it wasn't for the strong play of Rondon. The rising star has seven goals and four assists in his second season with the club, and he should only continue to improve as he gains more La Liga experience.
His poise in front of goal is rare for a 22-year-old forward, and that's what makes him so dangerous. If he's given room to operate, more often than not he's going to create a terrific scoring opportunity out of it. Levante found that out the hard way last weekend when he buried the game winner shortly after half.
The Boquerones need to find a way to give him involved early. Like most strikers, getting those touches in the first handful on minutes allows him to settle in. Madrid kept him in check the first time and will need to do so again this time around.
Key Matchup: Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Martin Demichelis
Ronaldo leads Lionel Messi by two goals for the La Liga lead. Messi has captured the major awards in recent years, so the Portugal international is trying to knock him off his pedestal. If the Blancos are able to hold off Barcelona, scoring more goals than Messi would be like the cherry on top for Ronaldo.
Stopping him will be the Demichelis' job on Sunday. Ronaldo scored a hat trick in the last meeting, so whatever the Malaga back line was trying to do failed miserably. The 31-year-old veteran will need to make sure his fellow defenders are on the same page. If they let Ronaldo get loose, he'll bury it.
The Boquerones need to stop him from dominating the game like he did last time if they hope of picking up even one point. That's always said than done, of course. After all, Ronaldo is one of the best strikers on the planet.
What They're Saying
There have been plenty of questions about the future of Mourinho, but Ronaldo believes the boss will remain at Real Madrid next season (via ESPN):
But Ronaldo is confident that his coach is going nowhere. "Mourinho will stay with Real Madrid next season," he told reporters. "But it is the club that is the most important thing and not Mourinho, or me."
Malaga midfielder Santi Cazorla respects the roll the Blancos have been on lately, but still believes his side can cause problems for the leaders, according to Mark Doyle of Goal.com:
"This has been a good week for us, resulting in very positive position in the table which gives us much more confidence and tranquillity," the winger told reporters on Thursday.
"[Madrid] are a tough opponent and very strong but we must face them [head on]. We can do them damage. We must be aware that we can win.
"And we will go out to try and win, as we do in every game. We need audacity and to know that in a one-off game, anything is possible."
Real Madrid 3, Malaga 1