Real Madrid face last-place Huesca in battle of large and little
Madrid, Dec 7 (AFP) Luka Modric has been voted the best player on the planet and Real Madrid crowned European champions three times in a row but in Huesca on Saturday they will meet a team from the opposite end of the ladder.
Madrid's stars gathered in Paris on Monday, dressed in shiny black suits and bow-ties, to watch their midfield magician collect the Ballon d'Or, ahead of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
"He is at his peak," Real coach Santiago Solari said. "That makes it even more beautiful." From the Grand Palais on the Champs-Elysees, they head this weekend to northern Spain and Alcoraz, Huesca's recently-expanded stadium with a capacity of just over 7,000, in a town of little more than 52,000 people.
There, they face La Liga's bottom club, on seven points from 14 games, but Huesca's ascent began far lower down than that.
The majority of their 58-year history has been spent between the third and fourth tiers. They were languishing in Segunda B as recently as 2015.
Promoted to the top flight for the first time at the end of last season, Huesca prepared by overhauling their squad, but on a shoe-string budget, with a mix of players from the lower divisions, promising youngsters and old heads from abroad.
They changed coach too, twice, after Rubi was poached by Espanyol, who are now seventh. He was replaced by Leo Franco, who only lasted until October. Then in came Francisco, who is yet to see a victory.
Some of te promotion team remained, including top scorer Alex Gallar. He joined in 2017 after spells at Cultural Leonesa, Hercules, Cornella and Mallorca's B team, all four sides in the third tier.
"When I came here, it was not the main objective to go up to the top flight but we did it," Gallar said.
"It was a very good decision to come here." One of his three goals this term came against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Huesca scored twice there, including the opener, but Barca finished with eight.
This, though, will be Huesca's first time hosting either of Spain's two grandees and a chance for the fans to ponder on how far their team has come.
"We have seen people are behind us despite the results and pushes us to turn it around," Francisco said last week.
"Our home has to be a fortress." In the summer of 2013, Real Madrid bought Gareth Bale for a world record 100 million euros while Huesca signed seven players, all for nothing.
Madrid are in good form and Bale, again, has a point to prove. He came off in the second half of last weekend's win over Valencia, rubbing his thigh, while Santiago Solari said afterwards he was "exhausted".
It was Bale's tenth La Liga game without scoring, even if that run masks some decent performances under Solari, including two goals and an assist in the Champions League.
"Bale is working well," Solari said on Wednesday. "He's fine." Real's victory over Valencia, on the back of beating Roma in Italy, means the 3-0 defeat to Eibar following the international break seems more like a blip amid six wins from seven matches.
Despite changing coach this season, a scoreless drought that lasted more than eight hours and being thrashed by Barcelona, Madrid are only five point off the top.
That they remain just about in touch is down to one of the most error-ridden title races in recent memory. Last weekend, Barca, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Alaves could all have finished the round in first but only two of the top six managed to win. Barcelona were one of them. On Saturday, Ernesto Valverde's side visit their Catalan rivals Espanyol.
Atletico host Alaves, who have finished every weekend in the top six since round five. Sevilla are away to Valencia, a side that last season finished fourth but now sit 14th