The 2013-14 La Liga campaign continues with a full slate of matchups in Week 23.
Atletico Madrid sit high atop the league table entering Matchday 23. Despite suffering a disastrous 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinals on Feb. 5, the Spanish powerhouse will be heavy favorites to prevail when they visit Almeria in one of four matches scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 8.
Second place clubs Real Madrid and Barcelona will also be favorites in Week 23. Los Blancos, who will be without Cristiano Ronaldo because of suspension, will host Villarreal at the Bernabeu in the weekend's marquee showdown.
The good news for Real supporters is that Gareth Bale is set to return to the lineup, helping alleviate some of the pressure applied by Ronaldo's absence.
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi and Barcelona will look to bounce back from a gut-wrenching 3-2 loss to Villarreal in Week 22. Barca will visit Sevilla on Sunday, Feb. 9 in a rematch of a thrilling matchup back on Sept. 14 in which Barca won 3-2 thanks to Alexis Sanchez's go-ahead score late in injury time.
In a strange twist, Messi's motivation and passion for football have come under fire ahead of this weekend's clash with Sevilla. Former Barcelona assistant coach Angel Cappa claims that the four-time Ballon d'Or winner has lost the drive that made him into the world's top player.
However, Messi's teammates, including striker Pedro, have come to his aid, per ESPN FC's Dermot Corrigan:
Obviously when he was not here other players shared the goals. But when he is there, the team is much stronger. We have the best player in the world. We have created chances in recent games but not scored as many as we wanted. But we remain united and confident.
I do not believe that Messi has lost passion. He is still really motivated. Everything seems to be linked to goals, but he also creates a lot of play for us and brings so much to the team.
Messi didn't score in Barca's Copa del Rey semifinal triumph over Real Sociedad on Feb. 5 but will be the center of attention this weekend for the aforementioned reasons.
Let's take a closer look at the updated La Liga table and the fixtures for Matchday 23.
|La Liga Week 24 Table|
|Li Liga Matchday 23 Fixtures|
|Feb. 8||Valencia||5-0||Real Betis|
|Feb. 8||Rayo Vallecano||4-1||Malaga|
|Feb. 8||Real Madrid||4-2||Villarreal|
|Feb. 8||Almeria||2-0||Atletico Madrid|
|Feb. 9||Real Valladolid||2-2||Elche|
|Feb. 9||Real Sociedad||0-0||Levante|
|Feb. 10||Celta Vigo||0-0||Athletic Bilbao|
Espanyol 1, Granada 0
Despite going a man down in the 30th minute after defender Victor Alvarez was sent off, Espanyol found a way to knock off Granada in Week 23's opening match on Friday, Feb. 1.
Man of the Match Hector Moreno's 79th-minute strike broke the deadlock in Barcelona. As Opta Sports points out, midfielder Sergio Garcia was once again at the center of it all, providing the key assist on Moreno's decisive goal:
Moreno scored on a header following a corner kick taken by Garcia.
The victory is Espanyol's eighth of the season in La Liga and lifts them above Valencia and Levante in the league table. Keep in mind that those clubs will have an opportunity to leapfrog Los Periquitos this weekend.
Still, considering Espanyol hadn't won a match since Jan. 18, their short-handed triump in Week 23 will give them significant momentum as they head into a pivotal stretch.
Follow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Patrick Clarke on Twitter.