Bernabeu, Sunday, 8.30pm (live Sky Sports 1)

IKER CASILLAS this week insisted Real Madrid's greatest challenge this season had come at them, unexpectedly, in the shape of Rayo Vallecano last week.

They struggled to a 1-0 victory courtesy of a sublime backheel from Cristiano Ronaldo and tonight face another tricky tie in the shape of Espanyol.

“The Parakeets” have already ruined Barcelona's title hopes (Alvaro Vazquez's diving header snatching a 1-1 draw back in January) and racked up some dominant wins at home but having taken just two points from their last four outings – including home defeats to Real Zaragoza and Levante –  it's difficult to tell which Espanyol side will show up.

Madrid have now won 13 out of their last 14 games at the Santiago Bernabeu with an average of over four goals per match and their current tally of 64 points in the first 24 games of the season is a club record.

Kaka has seen a turnaround in fortunes this season and he's been the main man in midfield for Madrid over the last few games but could be rested today with Germany international Mesut Ozil set to replace him.

With Karim Benzema injured, Gonzalo Higuain will be the sole striker – and while he hasn't been at his blistering best recentl he did nab a hat-trick in the reverse fixture earlier this season.

Versatile left-back Fabio Coentrao is set to be out of action for three weeks after sustaining an abductor muscle injury while playing in Portugal's 0-0 draw with Poland. Meanwhile, countryman and team-mate Pepe is suspended, which softens up a mean Real defence just a little bit.

There should be goals for both teams in this one. Real have conceded first in wins over Levante, Zaragoza, Bilbao, Mallorca, Malaga, Atletico Madrid and Vallecano this season and saw an early equaliser from Granada in a 5-1 thrashing.

They don't mind coming from behind – if anything they seemingly lull sides into a false sense of security and explode into life in the second half. It might be a strange bet but taking the second half to produce more goals than the first pays 11-10 at bet365, Coral and William Hill.

Ronaldo continues to lead the way for Madrid and he's 9-4 (boylesports, Stan James, various) to do what he did last week and break the deadlock. He's 13-8 with Betfred to nab two or more and 9-4 with Skybet to score in both halves.

Higuain follows at a temping 3-1 to score first and punters backing him to repeat his heroics from Barcelona, can get 16-1 on him bagging a hat-trick (Skybet, BetVictor).

For both teams to score, which seems likely, take Paddy Power's 11-10. Ladbrokes and Coral also offer those odds. If Madrid turn it on they could easily win by a few goals so the handicap markets provide far better value than a straight win scenario. Paddy Power offer evens on Madrid -2 goals and pushing it to -3 sees sportingbet flash 12-5.


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