An early lead, a quick implosion, two red cards, one absurd save and one serious injury: For Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid, Saturday's 2-1 defeat to Barcelona was a pull-your-hair-out sort of day. One of frustration, of blown chances and what-ifs.
Back in the Spanish capital, it was exactly that for Real Madrid, too.
Watching on from a distance, Zinedine Zidane and Co. will have grimaced and sighed as the action at the Camp Nou unfolded. Lingering behind both Barcelona and Atletico in the table but closer to the latter, Madrid desperately needed their capital rivals to take something from their eternal rivals and narrow the gap at the top.
Instead, Madrid watched the gap widen as Atleti orchestrated their own demise.
Afterwards, Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo insisted his side's win was "not a knockout blow for the league." Statistically, he was right. But emotionally, it felt very close to being so; Barcelona are now three points clear of Atleti with a game in hand and seven clear of Madrid, and their remaining fixture list continues to get easier.
Now, it's up to Madrid to respond. Emphatically. Indeed, Zidane's men will need to be almost flawless from here if they want to challenge for the league title, starting with Sunday's visit of Espanyol.
Positively for Los Blancos, recent encounters with Barcelona's "other" team will stir fond memories. Back in September, Cristiano Ronaldo bagged a manita when scoring five in a 6-0 rout of the Catalans. The time before that, the Portuguese finished with a hat-trick as Madrid ran out 4-1 winners last May. We're approaching a decade since Espanyol last tasted victory against Madrid, too.
Will Sunday be more of the same, then? Quite possibly.
After a relatively strong burst at the beginning of the season, Espanyol have hit the skids. In the league, five games have passed since their last win; in all competitions, that number is seven. Under new manager Constantin Galca signs of improvements have been evident in a tough run, but points have remained elusive.
"We need to be loose out on the pitch and play our own game," said Galca ahead of the trip to the Bernabeu. "We're going to try to do the best we can with the players we've got."
That's the problem, though: Due to injuries, suspensions and contract clauses of loanees, what they've got for this clash with Real Madrid isn't much.
More on that below.
Date: Sunday, January 31
Time: 7:30 p.m. GMT / 2:30 p.m. ET/ 8:30 p.m. local
Venue: Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid
TV Info: Sky Sports (UK), beIN Sports (U.S.)
|D: 1-1 vs. Real Betis||D: 2-2 vs. Villarreal|
|W: 5-1 vs. Sporting Gijon||L: 1-3 vs. Getafe|
|W: 5-0 vs. Deportivo La Coruna||L: 0-2 vs. Barcelona|
|D: 2-2 vs. Valencia||L: 1-2 vs. Eibar|
|W: 3-1 vs. Real Sociedad||L: 1-4 vs. Barcelona|
|W: 10-2 vs. Rayo Vallecano||D: 0-0 vs. Barcelona|
For Real Madrid, captain and leading centre-back Sergio Ramos is in line to return on Sunday. If he does return, Ramos, who hasn't played since the victory over Deportivo La Coruna because of a calf injury, will join Raphael Varane in the heart of the defence given that Pepe trained away from the main group on Friday, per the club's official website.
Also at the back, Dani Carvajal is a strong candidate to return following Danilo's disappointing display at right-back against Real Betis, while the rest of the side is expected to be unchanged. Gareth Bale remains out.
For Espanyol, the forced changes will be numerous, particularly in attack.
Both Gerard Moreno and Victor Alvarez will miss Sunday's trip to the Bernabeu because of suspension, while Real Madrid loanees Marco Asensio and Burgui are unavailable against their parent club. Leading striker Felipe Caicedo is also out through injury.
Consequently, Salva Sevilla could replace Asensio in the No. 10 role, while the returning Hernan Perez will fill the right-sided attacking berth. Over on the left, Galca could opt to use one of his two left-backs in Ruben Duarte or Fuentes as a makeshift winger, while young forward Mamadou Sylla could get a rare chance up front.
In the Spotlight
If sense prevails, Dani Carvajal will start against Espanyol on Sunday.
Odds (via Odds Shark)
Real Madrid: 1-10