Real Madrid host Valencia at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday knowing that victory is essential to preserve their hopes of pipping Barcelona to La Liga glory.
However, the visit of Los Che is anything but a formality as Saturday’s visitors look to stave off competition from Sevilla and move another step toward the Champions League.
It could prove a season-defining week for Real Madrid, whose Champions League hopes hang in the balance after suffering a 2-1 first-leg semi-final defeat in Juventus.
Furthermore, another setback against Valencia and Carlo Ancelotti’s side may be staring down the barrel of a trophyless season.
It seems a long time ago that Real embarked on a club record 22-match winning streak; one that was coincidentally ended by Valencia following a 2-1 defeat at the Mestalla in January.
Cristiano Ronaldo had fired the visitors ahead, but an own goal from Pepe and a 65th-minute winner from Nicolas Otamendi saw Los Blancos fall three short of a world record.
Just three more wins and Ancelotti’s charges would have written themselves into football history, and vengeance is among the motifs for Saturday’s hosts as they look to boost their Liga hopes, while simultaneously damaging Los Che’s top-four bid.
This time, they bring a seven-match Liga winning streak into the Bernabeu; a run of form that has seen them display a level of resilience that is bound to irk Barcelona, who sit two points clear heading into the weekend.
Their 4-2 win at Celta Vigo was a rigourous test of their title credentials, having trailed 2-1 at one stage, and last week’s 3-2 victory at in-form Sevilla – who sit three points behind Valencia – will have solidified the belief that they can push Barca all the way in a fascinating title race.
Recent form: WWWWWW
Recent form (all competitions): WWWWWL
Nuno Espirito Santo’s side make the 220-mile trip to Real Madrid knowing that defeat makes the road to Champions League qualification that bit more treacherous.
Four points adrift of third-placed Atletico Madrid and three clear of Sevilla in fifth, Los Che look good to re-establish themselves among Europe’s elite next term.
However, dropping points at the Bernabeu throws up an invitation for Sevilla – who face Celta Vigo away on Sunday – to provide a nervy finale to the season ahead of the last two games.
Valencia boast the superior head-to-head record, meaning that the Rojiblancos would stay fifth should they move level on points by the end of matchday 36, but that scenario would disappoint Santo’s charges, having boasted an eight-point lead over them as recently as March.
They have held a top-four spot since mid-February and it is visits to places like the Bernabeu which provides the sternest test of their Champions League credentials.
Recent form: DWLWDW
Real have been boosted by the news that striker Karim Benzema is nearing a return to fitness and could be involved tomorrow.
The Frenchman has sat out the last six games with a knee injury, but trained on Thursday and Ancelotti will decide whether to risk him or continue with Javier Hernandez, who has three goals in four starts.
Meanwhile, midfielder Luka Modric and Sami Khedira remain sidelined for the Blancos.
Elsewhere, Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves is poised to return after falling injured in last week’s win over Eibar.
Real Madrid possible starting lineup:
Casillas; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Kroos, Isco, James, Bale, Ronaldo; Benzema
Valencia possible starting lineup:
Alves; Barragan, Mustafi, Otamendi, Gaya; Parejo, Fuego, Gomes; Feghouli, De Paul, Paco
Head To Head
Valencia need to travel back seven years for their last win over Real Madrid – a 3-2 victory at the Bernabeu. Since then, Real have won four and drawn four of the following eight meetings. Los Che have only managed to win three other meetings from 23, all of which have come in the capital.