Football: Real Madrid fighting fit to put pressure on La Liga leaders Sociedad and rivals

Real Madrid players celebrate a goal by striker Karim Benzema (left) during their Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk on Nov 3, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MADRID (REUTERS) - Real Sociedad may be the surprise La Liga leaders but Real Madrid are close to full strength and can begin to steal a march on their rivals this weekend when they face Rayo Vallecano, with Barcelona and champions Atletico Madrid still underperforming.

Carlo Ancelotti's side are one point behind Sociedad (25 points from 12 matches) but have a game in hand. Real are also eight points ahead of old foes Barca, who are yet to announce a permanent successor to sacked coach Ronald Koeman.

Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr have been in great form this season for Madrid and forwards Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale are also close to returning to match fitness after lengthy injury layoffs.

That gives Ancelotti a welcome selection headache ahead of Saturday's (Nov 6) match at the Bernabeu.

"Hazard is ready to play, we will see how Bale trains before the game. All players that are not playing need to have faith and work hard," Ancelotti said after Real's 2-1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Hazard and Bale will have a hard time trying to displace Vinicius in the starting line-up as the Brazilian, who contributed two assists for Benzema in midweek, has seven goals and three assists in 11 La Liga games, only two behind the Frenchman in the scoring charts.

Real's city rivals Atletico fell flat in their European encounter this week, losing 2-0 to Liverpool, though it could have been more devastating. On Sunday they travel to Valencia, who snapped a seven-game winless run in their last match against Villarreal.

On Sunday, Sociedad will face another of the season's surprise packages in Osasuna, who have risen to seventh in the standings in their third campaign back in the top flight.

Sevilla travel to bitter rivals Betis the same day looking to stay level on points with Real. Julen Lopetegui's side lost 2-1 to Lille in the Champions League on Tuesday but have only one defeat in 11 league games this season.

Despite a slim victory over Dynamo Kiev in midweek, Barcelona are still on a dismal run domestically and travel to Celta Vigo on Saturday ninth in the standings on 16 points.

The Catalans have not won in three league matches but are trying to reach an agreement with Qatari club Al-Sadd so they can hire former Barca midfielder Xavi Hernandez as their new manager.

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