BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The Spanish league returns after an international break with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid both seeking a ninth straight win to start the season. While Barcelona hopes to have Lionel Messi back, Real Madrid expects Gareth Bale also to return from injury before the two teams face tough Champions League matches midweek. Here are five things to know about this weekend’s games:
NINE FOR NINE, TIMES TWO
Barcelona and Atletico Madrid can match a Spanish league record for the most consecutive wins to start the season on Saturday. Both sides sit atop the standings— with Barcelona ahead on goal difference— after setting individual club milestones by winning their first eight matches. Now the two sides can equal Real Madrid’s record start in 1968 of nine victories in as many rounds. Barcelona will visit an Osasuna side that is coming off its second win of the season, a 1-0 victory at Malaga. Atletico travels to the Catalan capital to play an Espanyol team that is on a three-game losing skid.
MESSI & BALE EXPECTED BACK
Barcelona and Real Madrid are hoping to get back two of the league’s biggest stars for this round before taking on Italian powerhouses AC Milan and Juventus respectively in the Champions League. Barcelona has been without Lionel Messi since he injured his right thigh on Sept. 28. The club’s all-time leading scorer trained on Tuesday and may be ready to make the trip to Pamplona. Madrid has been in a muddle over the health of Gareth Bale. Club president Florentino Perez has denied Spanish media reports that Bale is suffering a hernia and said that he expects the Wales winger he paid 100 million euros for this summer to play against Malaga on Saturday.
MORE BOOS FOR BENZEMA?
Perhaps nobody hopes to benefit more from than the weeklong break for international matches than Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema. Much maligned in Madrid, Benzema ended a long scoring drought for France by finding the net both in its friendly against Australia and in a World Cup qualifier against Finland. Benzema will now try to carry his mini-scoring run over to his club where he has gone a month without a goal. That has led to jeers from angry fans at the Santiago Bernabeu and calls for youngster Alvaro Morata to take his place. “These have been 10 good days for me,” Benzema said. “I am coming off the most difficult period of my career, but I have never lost my confidence. I have never given up and I never will.”
THE ART OF ANNOYANCE
Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone has revealed the secret behind his team’s success: make rivals wish they were playing any other team. “When I arrived here I said that what I wanted was for our opponents to always be annoyed that they had to play against Atletico,” Simeone told Spanish sports daily Marca. “Our games have to be a chore for them, they can’t just be another fixture. Our rivals have to suffer when they play us.” Atletico is tied with Barcelona for fewest goals allowed with six and has dominated its league opponents so far this season. Up front, it has Brazilian striker Diego Costa and his league-leading 10 goals that he will try and add to against Espanyol.
VILLARREAL AT BILBAO
Villarreal’s visit to Athletic Bilbao on Monday should be one of the most exciting matches of the round, featuring two teams which always look to score with an up-tempo attack. Villarreal is enjoying a strong return to the topflight after one season in the second division with only one loss so far to sit in fourth place. It has been led by the passing of Ruben “Cani” Gracia, Jonathan Pereira’s speed and Giovani Dos Santos’ four goals. Bilbao and its slew of talented attacking players led by Markel Susaeta and Iker Muniain are unbeaten at home this season through four matches.