Soccer: Real travel to Girona as political unrest in the region grows
By Joseph Cassinelli
MADRID (Reuters) - As the central government of Spain prepares to impose direct rule on Catalonia after the north-eastern region held an illegal referendum on independence, Real Madrid travel to Catalan outfit Girona on Sunday in a La Liga match laced with political undertones.
Situated around 100-kilometres from Barcelona, Girona is fiercely pro-independence and the regional government leader, Carles Puigdemont, is former mayor of the city.
With growing public protests across the region, a spiky atmosphere with a strong anti-Spain sentiment is expected at the newly-promoted side's Montilivi stadium.
Real, who travel to neighbours Fuenlabrada on Thursday in the King's Cup, have recovered from a shaky start to their title defence to sit third having won five of their last six games in all competitions.
Coach Zinedine Zidane says that neither he nor his players will be affected by what is likely to be a frosty welcome. "I'm not worried about the reception. We're going to play a football game and there'll be safety measures, as always at a football game," he said.
"We'll prepare the match like any other game without thinking about it more."
Zidane was this week given FIFA's The Best Coach award, however he insisted that there is plenty of hard work ahead if he is to join football's coaching elite.
"I don't know who the best coach in the world is. I can say that I accept The Best award and it's the fruit of the work we've done so far, with what we won," he said. "I'm happy, but don't think I'm the best coach in the world. If in ten years I keep winning, maybe I'll say that I am, but not right now."
Unbeaten league leaders Barcelona, meanwhile, travel to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday as coach Ernesto Valverde prepares to return to his former club for the first time as Barca boss.
"It's quite an emotive game for me. When I've been there with other clubs it always has been. I won't talk about the numbers because returning hasn't gone too well for me. Athletic are a very strong side at home," Valverde said.
La Liga top scorer Lionel Messi and teammate Andres Iniesta were both named in the FIFPro world team of the year during the week and are expected to start at the weekend.
Elsewhere on Saturday second-placed Valencia travel to Alaves, while Atletico Madrid host Villarreal.
(Reporting by Joseph Cassinelli; Editing by Christian Radnedge)