Espanyol vs. Real Madrid: Key Battles to Watch
Espanyol could win the league for their next door neighbors, Barcelona, if they avoid defeat against Real Madrid on Saturday.
Since appointing Javier Aguirre at the end of November, Los Pericos have been in fantastic form—although, since reaching 43 points, things have definitely dropped off.
If Los Blancos can pick up three points at Cornella-El Prat, the gap between them and Barca will close to five points, at least until Atletico Madrid host La Blaugrana on Sunday evening.
Madrid were shocked by Espanyol, who grabbed a 2-2 draw at the Bernabeu in December, in a match which provided fascinating battles across the pitch.
So where could the match be won and lost this weekend?
Wakaso vs. Nacho
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Mubarak Wakaso felt the wrath of Javier Aguirre when he returned late from the African Cup of Nations, and was made to wait for his chance back in the starting lineup.
The 22-year-old has managed to dislodge Simao now though, and has scored two goals and laid on three assists since breaking back into the side in March.
Performances prior to Espanyol's recent dip, against Osasuna and Valencia especially, were particularly good.
Nacho Fernandez, who at 23 is actually older than Wakaso, has been filling in at right-back for Madrid recently, and the two should be pitted against each other on Saturday.
What will prevail?
Wakaso's pace and direct running with the ball? Or Nacho's defensive nous and ability?
Modric vs. Sanchez
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Mesut Ozil looked in some discomfort when he left the match against Malaga on a stretcher on Wednesday night, so it's likely the in-form Luka Modric will continue in an advanced central role.
The Croatian received a standing ovation when he was substituted after scoring in the same game, and looks to have finally won the respect of the Madrid fans.
At Cornella, he'll be looking to cause problems in the areas which have become dominated by Victor Sanchez since Aguirre's appointment.
Sanchez, 25, is an ever present in defensive midfield for Espanyol, and has provided the solid platform for a large chunk of their good form this year.
He averages nearly five tackles every game (via WhoScored.com) and will have Modric in his eyes on Saturday.
Ronaldo vs. Lopez
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Next in his line of vision is Hugo Sanchez—who scored 208 goals for the club—and then Ferenc Puskas, who's a bit further ahead with 242.
Another consistent performer for Espanyol has been right-back Javi Lopez, and he'll be tasked with stopping Ronaldo's charge towards Sanchez at Cornella-El Prat.
However, if he and his defensive colleagues are as generous as they were to Sevilla last weekend, then the Portuguese forward could have a field day.
Shots vs. Casilla
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Kiko Casilla—yes, like Casillas but without the "s"—started the season as Espanyol's No. 2 'keeper, but since being required at the Bernabeu he's become first choice.
In the 2-2 draw in the Spanish capital, the 26-year-old—who spent several years with Real Madrid when he was younger—thwarted Jose Mourinho's side on many occasions.
It's highly likely he'll have to do the same in the reverse fixture this weekend if Espanyol are to emerge with any points from the match.
Mourinho vs. Pepe
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"Pepe's comments? It is very easy to analyse what he says. Pepe has a problem and his name is Raphael Varane—a 31-year-old has lost his place to a 19-year-old."
Problems have been bubbling under between the Portuguese manager and his squad for most of the season, but it was always thought Pepe—his countryman—remained loyal to him.
Last weekend's quotes attributed to the defender now suggest otherwise.
Pepe was not only hit back at through words, but wasn't even part of the squad for Wednesday's 6-2 win over Malaga.
Will he feature against Espanyol?
The best he can probably hope for is a place on the bench alongside his new ally Casillas.