The key question surrounding Saturday's game between Real Madrid and Málaga is this: How will it be affected by all the sub-plots? One the one hand, there's Tito Vilanova's illness, one which Madrid have been unable to get away from. And on the other, there's the European ban meted out to Málaga by UEFA, a punishment which hangs over the club's future hopes and dreams.
It's a strange situation. We have moved from an encounter filled with intrigue to a solemn, almost tragic occasion. Not even the fact that Barcelona play first serves as an incentive to Madrid, or at least not completely (or at least not at the time of writing); it's simply impossible to predict if a Barça slip-up will awaken an atmosphere of euphoria or solidarity. So many mental crossroads, so few signposts.
Focussing on matters on the field, Málaga are in the midst of their best ever season. Five points behind Real, the hosts are Champions League group winners and stand a real chance of knocking out Porto to book a quarter-final spot. The chief architect of this success (apart from their abrasive sheikh) is Manuel Pellegrini - not just for the technical and tactical know-how he brings, but above all for his ability to unify the team. Thanks to him, Isco and the club's youth products continue to progress, at the same time as veterans such as Joaquín experience a second, splendid youth. Much like last year, the team's weaknesses lie in the lack of solidity in midfield and an unconvincing backline.
As for the visitors, they are heartened by the return of Karim Benzema, a forward who relishes a comeback and is at his best when clouded by doubt. Quietly starting every match is not for him. Given his lesser importance to the side and the repeated nature of his injuries, the absence of Fabio Coentrao is less of an issue; Nacho, always standing by and ready for action, will replace the Portuguese defender. Other than these changes, Madrid coach Jose Mourinho is expected to name his habitual eleven, with Álvaro Morata on the bench in case of emergency. Cristiano, by the way, will play his second-last game before the winner of the Ballon d'Or is announced on 7th January.
So, the world did not end yesterday; yet if Madrid lose, the Mayan prediction may not be so wide of the mark after all. For Málaga, the objective is the same: to get rid of the black clouds circling above them, and to seek better fortune once more.