Real Madrid host Villarreal for their first midweek La Liga fixture of the season. This is a scary game. Villarreal have given Real Madrid fits in recent history, and even after a rather tumultuous end of the summer, the Yellow Submarine seems to have found its groove. (And after exposing you to Espanyol’s awful mascot last week, I feel inclined to introduce Villarreal’s adorable anthropomorphic submarine, Groguet.)
In August, just a week before their Champions League playoff match against Monaco, Villarreal’s beloved manager, Marcelino, was sacked (or left on his own accord? The details are murky) due to disagreements with the board. Marcelino had brought Villarreal from the Segunda División to the Champions League in three and a half years, and fans are right to be frustrated, melancholy, and confused about why he’s gone.
Enter Fran Escribá, who has twice been relegated in his managerial career. Though to be fair, when Elche under him it was due to administrative failures, but the impotence of Getafe last year came under his watch.
Villarreal started the year with consecutive draws. It seemed like the universe was working against Villarreal, that regression was inevitable, but they responded well and have now won three matches on the trot, and come into the Bernabéu with their key players healthy.
Lately, points dropped against Villarreal have been harbingers of tough times for Real Madrid.
Last December they beat Real, a defeat which would act as a nail in the coffin of Rafa Benítez’s tenure, and in 2014, their draw at the Bernabéu was the beginning of the end for Real’s La Liga title quest. Yep, still hurts to think about that.
Villarreal are known for their attacking moxie and open style of play, but their defense has been their most impressive unit this season. Only Atlético Madrid have conceded fewer goals than the Yellow Submarine, and Bruno Soriano is a name to watch as he’ll hold down the defensive midfield, just like he’s done over 350 times for Villarreal. Alexandre Pato and Nicola Sansone sit atop their 4-4-2, and we may even see Real Madrid castoff Denis Cheryshev.
Madrid’s last two wins have been less convincing than many would have hoped given the competition, and the injury carousel continues to spin round and round. Back will be Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, and out goes Casemiro, who was hurt against Espanyol.
It’s hard to imagine a situation in which Zidane doesn’t start James Rodríguez, given the whole him saving the day against Espanyol thing and the fact that Casemiro’s hurt. Toni Kroos will likely slide deeper, with Luka Modrić and James being the ones tasked with creating chances for the BBC.
Zidane has a chance to set a record for consecutive La Liga matches won at 17, which would put him ahead of fellow bald-ex-player-turned-Champions-League-winning-manager, Pep Guardiola. Villarreal will be Madrid’s toughest test of the season yet.
Wednesday, 21 September 2016 at 2:00PM EST
Real Madrid: Casilla; Marcelo, Ramos, Varane, Carvajal; Kroos, Kovacic, James; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo
Villarreal: Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, V. Ruiz, J. Costa; Castillejo, Trigueros, Bruno, Soriano; Pato, Sansone