Soccer-Primera Liga matches, January 23-24

By Simon Baskett MADRID, Jan 21 - Espanyol will be looking to take advantage of the internal squabbles at Deportivo Coruna to continue their most promising campaign in a decade when the two clubs meet at the Riazor on Sunday (kickoff 1600 GMT). More accustomed to scrapping for survival in the lower reaches of the table, the Catalans have enjoyed a remarkable first half of the season and occupy a Champions League berth in fourth spot in the table. Much of the credit for their present success must go to coach Miguel Angel Lotina, who guided Celta Vigo to an impressive fourth place finish two seasons ago. The lugubrious Basque has instilled a new self-belief at the club since taking over at the start of the season and has built one of the most well-balanced sides in the Primera Liga. With the athletic Carlos Kameni in goal and the experienced Argentine duo Hugo Ibarra and Mauricio Pochettino at the back, Espanyol have one of the best defensive records in the league. Midfielder Ivan de la Pena is playing his best football since leaving Barcelona in 1998 and Argentine international Maxi Rodriguez is in prolific form up front. "I'm convinced that we have still got room for improvement as a team," says Lotina. "We still have some weaknesses but I'm not putting any limit on the ambitions of this team because we are capable of achieving a great deal." In contrast Deportivo are in crisis. Having been the most consistent team in Spain over the last five years, the Galicians have struggled since the start of the season and are down in 12th position having not won in their last seven outings. Off field squabbles are hardly helping. Only this week Uruguayan striker Walter Pandiani blamed the team's poor season on coach Javier Irureta and the failure of some of his team mates to put in the required effort. Depor have only won twice at the Riazor this season and another failure on Sunday could put unbearable pressure on Irureta, the longest serving coach in the league. Other matches being played this weekend (league positions in brackets, kickoff times 1600 GMT unless stated): Saturday: ATHLETIC BILBAO (9) v OSASUNA (8) 2100 After an inconsistent start to the season, Athletic have hit form in recent weeks. A five-match unbeaten run in the league and a crushing 6-0 win over third division Lanzarote will have put them in confident mood for this match against the Navarrans who are a place above them in the standings. - - - - BARCELONA (1) v RACING SANTANDER (17) 1900 The Catalans have been experiencing a bit of a mid-season wobble in recent weeks and need a convincing win against struggling Racing to restore their confidence ahead of what is going to be a difficult month. Influential midfielder Deco is back after suspension to help his side defend their 12-month unbeaten record at the Nou Camp. - - - - Sunday: ALBACETE (16) v SEVILLA (5) A surprise defeat for Sevilla at Malaga last week, but the Andalucians should prove too strong for Albacete who have the second worst home record in the league. Albacete's new recruit Nico Olivera may get a chance to make his debut against his old side. - - - - GETAFE (15) v REAL ZARAGOZA (11) Zaragoza face a tough return to Madrid after their unlucky 3-1 defeat against Real last week. Defender Cesar Jimenez is out for the rest of the season after suffering torn knee ligaments following a reckless challenge from Luis Figo and central defender Alvaro is suspended. - - - - LEVANTE (14) v REAL SOCIEDAD (13) Both sides are in desperate need of a win if they are to avoid getting dragged into the danger zone. After an unexpectedly bright start to the season Bernd Schuster's Levante have now gone nine matches without a win, while Sociedad have lost all three of their games so far this year. - - - - MALAGA (18) v ATLETICO MADRID (10) 1800 Antonio Tapia got off to a winning start as Malaga coach when he directed his side to a 1-0 win over Sevilla. He will be hopeful of getting another good result against poor travellers Atletico who have only won one game away from home this season. - - - - REAL BETIS (6) v NUMANCIA (20) Betis's Brazilian forward Edu grabbed a neat double in last week's 2-0 win over Mallorca and should recover from a bout of flu to renew his prolific partnership with fellow countryman Ricardo Olivera up front. Basement side Numancia have taken just one point away from home this season. - - - - REAL MADRID (2) v REAL MALLORCA (19) 2000 Real are looking to put their embarrassing exit from the King's Cup at the hands of second division Valladolid behind them with a convincing home display against struggling Mallorca. Ronaldo faces up to former coach Hector Cuper for the first time since the Brazilian's acrimonious departure from Inter Milan. Michael Owen is expected to start on the bench despite notching up his 10th goal of the season in midweek. - - - - VILLARREAL (7) v VALENCIA (3) With all the attention focused on Barca and Real, Valencia have been quietly recovering their confidence, putting together a nine-match unbeaten streak. But Claudio Ranieri's team face a stern test of their revival when they take on regional rivals Villarreal, the form side in Spain. Manuel Pellegrini's side followed up their emphatic 3-0 defeat of Barcelona with a 4-2 win over Levante, former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan grabbing a neat double to take his tally for the season to 11. Villarreal's only worry is that the in-form Juan Roman Riquelme is doubtful because of muscle pain in his right leg.

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