By Andy Hall
The Primera División ends its 2004 schedule on Tuesday and Wednesday with FC Barcelona hoping to further extend their commanding lead after what has been a spectacular year.
Barça welcome Levante UD tonight with a nine-point advantage over second-placed RCD Espanyol and their star man Ronaldinho crowned as FIFA World Player of the Year - a far cry from how they began 2004 by losing to Real Racing Club Santander and slipping to 12th in the standings. Bernd Schuster's side, in contrast, have been travelling backwards in recent weeks without a win in six outings.
Also on Tuesday, sixth-placed Club Atlético de Madrid visit Real Betis Balompié, who are just one position and one point behind. Atlético will almost certainly be missing defender Juan Velasco with a muscle problem, while Betis fans may be bidding farewell to Joaquin Sánchez, who is at the centre of transfer speculation.
Play resumes on Wednesday when Espanyol play host to fourth-placed Valencia, who drew at neighbouring Barcelona last weekend. The Catalan side learned on Monday that striker Dani García will be out for six weeks after tearing a thigh muscle. Vicente Rodríguez, Roberto Ayala and Mista are all doubts for Valencia.
Real Madrid CF, ten points behind Barça in third, welcome a Sevilla FC side still celebrating Sunday's derby win against Betis. Ronaldo, who was absent at the weekend, should return for the home side but goalkeeping deputy César Sánchez is out with flu.
Sunday's win against Racing has lifted morale at the Santiago Bernabéu as Iker Casillas explained: "
When you win and the leaders slip up that gives you hope again. It is still quite a tough task for us but we are on the right path. It is important to win even during games when you might be suffering as we showed the other night."
CA Osasuna's recent displays have seen them leap up to eighth place. CD Numancia, currently bottom, have a tough task ahead at El Sadar although Osasuna lost striker John Aloisi to a torn calf muscle on Sunday.
Villarreal CF, meanwhile, visit Albacete Balompié without Juan Manuel Peña, who has pulled a hamstring. Elsewhere, Athletic Club Bilbao welcome RCD Mallorca, RC Deportivo La Coruña meet Real Zaragoza, Racing play Getafe CF, and Málaga CF take on Real Sociedad de Fútbol.
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