BARCELONA Real Madrid's confidence is sky-high after their convincing win at Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and they can build on that momentum by taking another step towards the Spanish title when they visit relegation-fighting Sporting Gijon on Saturday.
Zinedine Zidane's side are three points clear of champions Barcelona with one game in hand and their 2-1 win in Munich on Wednesday, which leaves them ideally placed to reach the semi-finals, contrasts with the Catalans' haggard state.
Barca are on the brink of elimination from Europe's elite competition after their resounding 3-0 defeat at Juventus, and reports in the Catalan media on Thursday said tensions were high between the dressing room and Luis Enrique.
The coach was scathing of his side's display at the Juventus Stadium, calling their first half "a shipwreck". He said he found it difficult to believe they could stage another remarkable comeback in the second leg as they did against Paris St Germain in the previous round.
Clawing back Real's advantage in the league is also looking hard to imagine for Barca, after Neymar was hit with a three-game suspension for sarcastically applauding the assistant referee when sent off last Saturday in a surprise 2-0 defeat at Malaga.
The Brazilian forward is banned for Saturday's visit to Real Sociedad and the 'Clasico' showdown at Real Madrid the following week, plus the game against basement club Osasuna, with Paco Alcacer likely to take his place.
Real top the standings on 72 points from 30 games, while Barcelona have 69 from 31. Struggling Sporting have won five games all season and are 18th with 22 points, five adrift of safety.
Real's Gareth Bale will miss the trip to Sporting after being forced off against Bayern with muscle pain, although the out-of-form Wales international's absence proved a blessing in disguise.
His replacement Marco Asensio had a fine game and provided the cross for Cristiano Ronaldo to score his second goal of the match and clinch the game.
Ronaldo had earlier ended his month-long goal drought for Real by volleying in the equaliser in the 47th minute.
The Portuguese, whose goal tally in the league this season is his lowest since 2010, said he had been following a special fitness programme to ensure he was in top shape in the crucial final stretch of the season, as he aims to fire Real to a first league title since 2012.
"I made radical changes to my training to get to this stage of the season in the best state possible," Ronaldo told reporters after becoming the first player to score 100 goals in UEFA competitions.
"In the last few years I got to the end of the season at the limit and with small injuries, but I have worked hard with our fitness coach to be in the right shape for the final two months. The team is playing well and so is Cristiano."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)