Barcelona: Even as Real Madrid and Barcelona resume their title battle, Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone faces a difficult debut on Saturday as his team looks for their first away win of the Spanish season at Malaga.
The former Atletico midfielder has inherited a squad in 10th place and 10 points adrift of fourth-placed Levante, who hold the last spot to qualify for next season's Champions League.
"We are very excited for the game against Malaga so we can have the best fresh start possible," said Atletico midfielder Eduardo Salvio. "We know the adversary is very tough and that it has good players, so it is going to be a test of fire for us."
Barcelona resume their campaign against crosstown rivals Espanyol on Sunday.
Under former coach Gregorio Manzano, Atletico managed to earn only one point out of 21 in seven away games.
Malaga, meanwhile, have only lost once at La Rosaleda Stadium after undergoing a 60-million Euros squad overhaul this off-season.
"It's clear that (Simeone) is a great motivator," said fellow Argentine Martin Demichelis, whose Malaga have slipped into seventh place after going winless in their last three league games.
"We have to try and go out on the pitch with the same intensity as they are going to bring and look to take the game to them."
Demichelis' main task at centerback will be keeping tabs on Radamel Falcao, Atletico's leading scorer with nine goals in league play. While the Colombia striker may be supported by Adrian Lopez in attack, he won't be able to count on the playmaking skills of Jose Antonio Reyes, who Atletico transferred to boyhood club Sevilla on Thursday.
League leaders Real Madrid receive Granada earlier on Saturday aiming to extend their three-point advantage over Barcelona ahead of the defending champions game at crosstown rivals Espanyol on Sunday.
Madrid coach Jose Mourinho was critical of his team's performance midweek in the Copa del Rey, when they had to come from behind to beat Malaga 3-2. The Portuguese manager said that most of his starting 11 had spent the holidays slacking off.
Madrid captain Iker Casillas tried to play peacemaker between coach and squad by saying "the Christmas holidays are for resting, spending time with the family and later also for football."
Regardless of their form, Madrid are still favored against the promoted Andalusian side. Granada have risen from the drop zone to sit 12th after losing just once in their last seven league matches, but they have scored a league-low 10 goals, exactly half of Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo's league goal tally this season.
Barcelona have demolished their last eight opponents in all competitions by a combined score of 37-1 since their 1-0 defeat at Getafe in late November. Even so, Espanyol traditionally give a spirited fight in the Catalan capital derby.
"(Espanyol's) ground is one of the most toughest (in Spain)," said Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets. "They are a great team. They pressure high up the pitch. They are young, and even though they have sold players they still have a great squad."
Two more coaches will direct their first games following a tumultuous holidays for a number of struggling clubs.
Manolo Jimenez takes his place on the sidelines for last-placed Zaragoza as they travel to 19th-placed Racing Santander on Saturday in a meeting of the teams with the league's worst records, and coach Francisco Molina makes his debut for Villarreal when they welcome third-placed Valencia in a regional derby on Sunday.
"Our games against Valencia are always good ones," said Villarreal forward Marco Ruben. "It is an important match since it is a chance for the team to respond. Whenever there is a coaching change it provides some psychological peace for the team."
Also in Round 17, it's - Levante vs Mallorca, Real Sociedad vs Osasuna, Rayo Vallecano vs Sevilla, Getafe vs Athletic Bilbao, and Real Betis vs Sporting Gijon.
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