Carlos Queiroz, the Real Madrid coach, will be examining his players' commitment as much as their form when league action in Spain returns from the Christmas break this weekend.
Although his full-strength side resume against lowly Murcia at the top of the Primera Liga, he is aware that Madrid have been criticised for not being sufficiently focused on domestic games. They have frustrated supporters at the Bernabeu by trying to win with the minimum of effort and have occasionally come badly unstuck, such as when Real Mallorca beat them 5-1 in Madrid last season.
Queiroz believes he has instilled a more serious, professional attitude towards the less glamorous fixtures in his six months in charge although he may not have been impressed with comments made by Ronaldo before this evening's match. The Brazilian reflected happily on an injury-free year but said that his priority for 2004 was to collect a winner's medal from the Champions' League. "I want the Champions' League; I've already won the Primera," he said.
But Queiroz says he has detected a greater sense of responsibility in the Real players. "From a technical point of view we have no comparison," he said. "But the team have also gained in harmony. They are more responsible, calculated and calm."
Murcia have won only once since returning to the Primera Liga at the start of the season and the danger of a rapid return to the Second Division has seen the club move rapidly in the winter transfer market. The former Osasuna midfielder Leonel Gancedo has been added to the squad along with the Ecuadorean defender Ivan Hurtado and the former Barcelona goalkeeper Roberto Bonano.
In attack Murcia continue to rely on the former Real Madrid B striker Luis Garcia, who is their top scorer with five goals and optimistic he can make his former club pay for letting him leave. "It's hard to win in Madrid, but not impossible," he said. "If Mallorca won there 5-1 last season, why can't we?"
Second-placed Valencia entertain their local rivals Villarreal tomorrow boosted by the news that their international midfielder David Albelda has signed a contract that will keep him at the club until 2010.
Deportivo La Coruña, currently third, have a crunch Galician derby when they travel to near neighbours Celta Vigo tonight. Deportivo are six points behind Madrid and defeat could turn the title chase into a two-horse race. Moreover, although Celta are fourth from bottom in the table, they have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions' League and need points to ease their domestic anxieties before their European campaign kicks off again in February.
In another derby, fourth-placed Osasuna visit Athletic Bilbao, who could overtake them if they win. Atletico Madrid travel to Zaragoza, while Malaga could leap into the top six should they defeat Real Sociedad, who are third from bottom.
In mid-table, Sevilla need to kick start a charge for Europe against an improving Albacete, who are unbeaten in five games. Barcelona also need points in Santander if they are to avoid dropping into the bottom half of the table.
In Italy, the Serie A programme resumes on Tuesday, while league football in France returns next weekend.
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