What a past few weeks it has been. Who knew that Real Madrid’s win over Barcelona in El Clásico could be the beginning of a slump for Barcelona? Having nearly declared defeat at the hands of our arch-nemesis, the league race has now suddenly blown wide open, with both Real and Atléti hitting form at a crucial moment in the season.
FC Barcelona’s last three consecutive losses mark the worst spell the club has endured since October 2003, when the Catalan club had gone four games without recording a win. While Barcelona remain league leaders, Simeone’s Atlético de Madrid are now level on 76 points, with Zidane’s men just one point behind.
Marcelo has acknowledged Los Blancos’ inspiring run of form, and insists that his team maintain such intensity until the end of the season. "We've grown a lot in this final part of the season and our objective was to close the gap at the top, and now we are very close," said the full-back. Despite increased hope and optimism among Madrid fans, both Real and Atléti alike, Barcelona’s schedule is (at least on the face of it) the most manageable of the top three.
The last time Real Madrid suffered La Liga defeat was on February 27th at the Bernabéu against their city-rivals. Since then, the Whites have won seven consecutive games, including several key wins against Celta de Vigo, Las Palmas, Barcelona, and Sevilla. Meanwhile, Marcelino’s Villarreal side ended an impressive run of form at Vallecas, with the Yellow Submarines suffering a shock defeat against Rayo Vallecano.
Real Madrid’s defense remains a matter for concern, albeit only having conceded 30 goals this entire season in La Liga. This past year has arguably been Sergio Ramos’ worst in the past couple of years, with Rapha Varane likewise failing to live up to his high expectations. Villarreal, having scored at least one goal in the past six matches, are surely likely to trouble Zidane’s back four. The Valencian-based club are also defensively sound, having only conceded on 28 occasions (only once more than Barcelona), the third-lowest in the league .
Having beat Real Madrid 1-0 in the reverse fixture this past December, Villarreal will be confident of their chances at the Bernabéu. Aware of this Wednesday’s threat, Zidane must rally his Madrid side and ensure that they win each and every of their remaining games if they are to have a shot at winning the league title.
Pepe, Dani Carvajal, and Gareth Bale have all been left out, with Madrid taking every precaution ahead of a tricky schedule. Villarreal will meanwhile be without the services of Musacchio, Costa, Pina, Castillejo, and Soldado, who are all currently suffering from knocks.
So here we are. When asked who the favourite to win La Liga was, Zidane replied "No one." And if football has taught us anything over the past few weeks, it is that anything can truly happen. One game at a time.
Real Madrid possible lineup: Navas; Danilo, Ramos, Varane, Marcelo; Casemiro, Kroos, Modrić; James, Benzema, Ronaldo
Villarreal possible lineup: Areola; Mario, Bailly, Ruiz, Rukavina; Santos, Trigueros, Bruno, Suárez; Bakambu, Baptistao
Managing Madrid staff predictions:
- Om – Real Madrid 2 – 1 Villarreal
- Andrejs – Real Madrid 3 – 1 Villarreal
- Lucas – Real Madrid 3 – 0 Villarreal
- Timm – Real Madrid 3 – 1 Villarreal
- Jared – Real Madrid 2 – 0 Villarreal
- Marc – Real Madrid 3 – 1 Villarreal (or potentially 9 - 8)
- Nate – Real Madrid 3 – 1 Villarreal
- Mike – Real Madrid 2 – 0 Villarreal