MADRID, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Third-placed Villarreal travel to the Bernabeu looking to slow leaders Real Madrid's charge to towards their second consecutive Primera Liga title on Sunday.
The champions have a seven-point lead over arch-rivals Barcelona, with Villarreal and Atletico Madrid trailing in the distance by 12 and 13 points respectively.
Real have won seven on the trot and their 2-0 victory away to Atletico in the city derby last Sunday was their sixth league game without conceding a goal.
'Looking at the table it seems the league title will be between Real and Barcelona. The gap over third is now very big,' Real midfielder Guti has said.
Having played and won in the stadiums of their three closest challengers, Real now have home advantage for the high-profile showdowns to come, starting with Villarreal. They have won all nine league games in the Bernabeu so far.
Manuel Pellegrini's side were hammered 5-0 at home by Real back in September but have steadily improved since then.
They have a flourishing strike partnership developing between Nihat Kahveci and Giuseppe Rossi, who have scored 19 between them, with 34-year-old Robert Pires the inspiration in midfield.
'We aren't going there just to make up numbers,' Nihat told daily Sport. 'We will try to upset them and come away with a point at the very least.'
Villarreal have a tough King's Cup quarter-final first leg against Barcelona to get through on Thursday before Sunday's game.
Barca will hope to profit from any dropped points with a victory away at 15th-placed Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, when Atletico visit Real Mallorca.
Espanyol have been left reeling by the loss of top scorer Raul Tamudo to a broken arm and the thigh injury to reserve goalkeeper Inaki Lafuente, with first choice Carlos Kameni at the African Nations Cup with Cameroon.
After a 14-match unbeaten run in the league, Ernesto Valverde's fifth-placed side have lost two in a row and host struggling Real Betis on Sunday.
New Real Zaragoza coach Javier Irureta, their third of the campaign, takes charge for his first game on Sunday away to high-flying Racing Santander, who knocked them out of the King's Cup last week.