Ewan Macdonald detects the faintest hint of concern from Pep Guardiola ahead of the Barcelona city derby, but feels that this sets the stage for an emphatic win...Barcelona's 2-2 stumble away to Real Betis last week has Real Madrid fans - and perhaps even neutrals looking for excitement - dreaming of an open title race. After all, the gap is down to ten points from twelve, and with another Clasico still to come it would be premature to call things over just yet if the points totals start to converge.
Yet ten points remains a massive gap, and it seems entirely likely that it will stay that way this weekend as Pep Guardiola seeks to banish all complacency ahead of the Barcelona derby.
The main difference here is that Lionel Messi is to be wheeled out for a start. Shock, horror: the most on-form player in the entire squad is going to line up as part of the first eleven! In fact it is somewhat unusual: Messi's unique physique means that he must be treated with kid gloves as we reach the business end of the season, and thus more often than not against lower half sides he has been deployed as a substitute.
This is of particular importance as we head towards the Champions League, which resumes next week. Remember: Andres Iniesta is already out due to injury, and to risk losing Messi is something of a gamble.
That said, it's arguable that this game, against an Espanyol side entirely bereft of confidence and unable to find the finish, would be one that would benefit from some rotation elsewhere in the lineup, not least in defence...
It's that most irritating of cliches that form goes out the window in a heated derby, and in fact it has only the barest hint of truth in it. In recent years Barcelona have absolutely had the upper hand in this fixture: since the 2000-01 campaign the Blaugrana have won fully eleven of the nineteen fixtures between the sides, losing just three times. Furthermore, the Blaugrana have not lost a home league game to their rivals since the 1981-82 campaign.
On the occasions that results have gone against them, generally it's been precisely because of form, and not despite it. The disastrous 2006-07 campaign that saw the Blaugrana surrender the title also saw them surrender a home lead to Raul Tamudo's historic equaliser; the following year, Frank Rijkaard's last at the club, provided two stalemates in a season of missed opportunities.
This year's first Derbi, though, ended with a 2-1 win to Barcelona at Montjuic thanks to goals from Thierry Henry and - you guessed it - Lionel Messi. Let's not forget, either, that a rotated FCB side did the business in the Copa del Rey.
That's not to say it was plain sailing. The league encounter - marred as it was by crowd violence - relied upon a late comeback from Barcelona, and as Espanyol president Daniel Sanchez Llibre remarked, the refereeing performance of Medina Cantalejo was, to put it one way, not irrelevant in determining the passage of play.
Yet at home, top of the table, with a strong squad, and with Pep Guardiola's words ringing in their ears, the draw of last week will be forgotten. The title race is still over, and that'll be proved on Saturday.
Ewan Macdonald, Goal.com