Spotlight falls on Basque contingent

January 20, 2006

MADRID, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Basement side Alaves will try to halt Barcelona's winning run while Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao battle it out in a high-tension regional duel in what promises to be a big weekend for the Basque teams.

With Barcelona in seemingly unstoppable form after chalking up their 17th consecutive win in all competitions, few give lowly Alaves much hope against the champions at the Nou Camp in the Primera Liga on Sunday.

But the Vitorians' spirits have been lifted after they claimed their first win in seven outings with a 2-0 victory at fifth-placed Deportivo Coruna last weekend in new coach Juan Carlos Oliva's first match in charge.

'I'm in heaven after winning at the Riazor in my first game in the Primera Liga,' Oliva said after the match.

'The important thing, though, is that we have started to change. The three points will give us confidence and credibility and I hope we can continue like this.'

The absence of Barca's leading striker Samuel Eto'o and influential midfielder Deco will also give Alaves further hope of recording another upset.

Eto'o, who has fired in 18 goals in 19 league games, has hooked up with the Cameroon squad for the African Nations Cup, while Deco is out after receiving a two-match ban for his dismissal in last Sunday's 2-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao.

Sweden striker Henrik Larsson is likely to step into Eto'o's shoes up front and highly rated Spanish youngster Andres Iniesta is favourite to occupy the vacant midfield slot.

Alaves held the Catalans to a 0-0 draw in the opening match of the season at Mendizorroza, but it will rate as one of the biggest shocks of the season if they manage to repeat the trick at the Nou Camp.

BASQUE DERBY

Bilbao, who are level on 15 points with Alaves at the bottom, would also welcome a repeat of their 3-0 win over Real Sociedad in the season-opener at San Mames.

Javier Clemente's side have won just three matches in the present campaign and are in urgent need of points if they are to avoid dropping out of the top flight for the first time in their history.

'It is a vital game for us,' Bilbao midfielder Fran Yeste said at a new conference this week. 'We are going to approach the game as if we are starting the season over again.'

Neighbours Sociedad are only marginally better off and one win in the last 10 outings has left them four points above the drop zone.

However, they have received a welcome boost with the news that Turkish striker Nihat Kahveci, the club's top scorer in the last three seasons, will remain with the club until the end of the current campaign.

Kahveci, who had agreed to leave for Spartak Moscow, should lead the Sociedad attack together with newly recruited Danish marksman Morten Skoubo.

In one of the weekend's other stand-out matches an improving Real Madrid will be out to continue their revival when they host struggling Cadiz on Saturday.

Real fans are likely to get their first glimpse of Italy striker Antonio Cassano who should feature in his first league match after scoring on his debut in Real's 1-0 King's Cup win at Real Betis on Wednesday.