Madrid - Spanish twin giants Barcelona and Real Madrid will make a contrasting start to 2009 this weekend.
Barca will kick off the New Year at home to Mallorca on Saturday, full of confidence and expectation, no less than 10 points clear at the top of the pursuing pack.
Never before has a team been so many points in the lead at this stage of the season, never before has a team conceded so few goals (just 10) after 16 games.
2008 started badly for Barca but the second half of the year was idyllic, mainly thanks to the calm authority and infectious enthusiasm of new coach Josep Guardiola.
Things have changed so much at the Camp Nou that, on Monday, Samuel Eto'o surprised everyone by returning from holiday four days early, so keen was he to be in the team for the Mallorca game.
Eto'o - league top scorer with 15 goals - had been given until Friday for his holidays by Guardiola, but couldn't wait to be back on the training ground.
"How different things are today," commented Catalan daily Sport on Wednesday, without mentioning names, "compared to how things were a year ago, when players used to skip training and matches, claiming to be injured."
To make things even better for Barca, Euro 2008 star Andres Iniesta is fit and again and desperate to reclaim his place in the team.
Real, in contrast, remain mired in acrimony and confusion.
Sporting director Pedja Mijatovic is in the eye of the storm, for having splashed out almost 40 million euros on Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Lassana Diarra without realizing that only one of them could be registered for the knockout stage of the Champions League, since they have both already played in this season's UEFA Cup, for Ajax and Portsmouth respectively.
The whites are joint fifth with Villarreal - their opponents on Sunday - both of them 12 points behind Barca.
Real will be without tonsillitis victim Gonzalo Higuain against Villarreal, though Huntelaar and Diarra are now fit to make their debuts.
Second-placed Sevilla will be at home to bottom team Osasuna on Sunday.
Valencia and Atletico Madrid, who share third place on 30 points, clash in Mestalla on Saturday after the Barca-Mallorca game.
Sunday's other games - in addition to the Real-Villarreal and Sevilla-Osasuna clashes - are as follows: Recreativo Huelva-Numancia, Valladolid-Racing Santander, Athletic Bilbao-Espanyol, Getafe-Deportivo Coruna, Almeria-Betis and Malaga-Sporting Gijon. (dpa)
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