El Madrigal, Villarreal
It can be argued that Wednesday evening’s trip to El Madrigal to face Villarreal represents the first real test of the new-look Real Madrid, with the home side looking to kick-start their season against the league leaders.
Despite the home side suffering a stuttering start to their Primera Division campaign, the quality that is represented in Villarreal’s squad makes them a tricky opponent for any side in La Liga. Coach Ernesto Valverde is trying his level best to make his side click, but they are so far winless domestically and already well adrift of the Champions League pacesetters.
Valverde knows, however, that his players have not been anywhere near their best so far. Marcos Senna’s injury has been a blow, while in the forward positions Giuseppe Rossi has yet to re-forge his partnership with Joseba Llorente, or indeed co-exist with new signing Nilmar, who has been used sparingly in the league to date.
Defensively, they appear vulnerable; Diego Lopez has performed manfully but his back four could simply not deal with the pace and vigour offered by Athletic Bilbao during Sunday’s 3-2 defeat, and in truth had it not been for a superb display from their goalkeeper, Villarreal could have faced a heavy loss.
And yet, despite the negativity of the performances, there remains belief among the squad that this side are capable of achieving success. Both Llorente and Joan Capdevila have issued battle cries to the arriving Real Madrid, and they are certain that they have the credentials to throw a massive spanner in Florentino Perez’s well-oiled machine.
There is of course the added spice of former Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini returning to the club he helped develop into a major force over a five-year period. It will be interesting to witness the reaction of the home support to the Chilean’s arrival, and equally interesting will be the team selection of the wily tactician, who now resides in the Real Madrid dug-out.
Despite the stellar names at his disposal, Pellegrini has shown no fear in operating a rotation policy at the Santiago Bernabeu, meaning the likes of Guti and Esteban Granero have managed unexpected minutes.
It has not affected their rhythm, either. While Los Merengues are still to hit top gear, they have been efficient and ruthless in front of goal, as Xerez found to their cost in the closing stages on Sunday evening. There are two adept players for every position at Los Blancos this season, and all of which seem capable of interchanging effortlessly without interrupting the dynamic of the side.
There is one individual that wants to play every minute of every match, however - a certain Mr. Ronaldo. It's clear to see why, given his stunning start that has well and truly silenced those critical of his transfer fee and his ability to integrate into the Spanish game.
The Portuguese is insatiable at the moment, and Villarreal could well be his next victim.
20 Sep Athletic Bilbao 3-2 Villarreal (La Liga)
17 Sep Villarreal 1–0 Rapid Vienna (Europa League)
13 Sep Villarreal 1-1 Mallorca (La Liga)
30 Aug Osasuna 1-1 Villarreal (La Lga)
27 Aug Villarreal 6-1 NAC Breda (Europa League)
20 Sep Real Madrid 5-0 Xerez (La Liga)
15 Sep FC Zurich 2-5 Real Madrid (Champions League)
12 Sep Espanyol 0-3 Real Madrid (La Liga)
29 Aug Real Madrid 3-2 Deportivo (La Liga)
25 Aug Real Madrid 4-0 Rosenborg (Pre-season)
Marcos Senna is likely to once again miss out, leaving a sizeable gap in the Los Submarinos Amarillos midfield, which they have struggled to fill so far. Striker Nilmar sustained a bruised rib in the clash with Athletic Bilbao and is a doubt, while Ariel Ibagaza is definitely out with a hamstring injury.
Possible Starting XI (4-4-2): Diego Lopez – Angel, Gonzalo, Godin, Capdevila – Cani, Eguren, Cazorla, Pires – Rossi, Llorente/Nilmar
Xabi Alonso is still suffering from the leg injury sustained versus FC Zurich in the Champions League, while the unlucky Ruud van Nistelrooy faces another six weeks on the sidelines through a thigh injury. The Dutchman had previously been missing for over ten months and only returned to action against Xerez on Sunday. Defenders Christoph Metzelder and Alvaro Arbeloa are also sidelined, for three weeks and ten days respectively, with physical problems.
Possible Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Casillas – Ramos, Albiol, Garay, Marcelo – L. Diarra, Gago – Higuain, Kaka, Ronaldo – Raul/Benzema
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Despite his side’s poor start to the campaign, Santi Cazorla has endeavoured whenever possible to lift his colleagues and provide the creative spark. He has also netted twice in three matches, including a stunning free kick versus Athletic Bilbao, meaning the Spaniard can be a threat to Los Blancos by drifting forward from his midfield berth.
Karim Benzema finally notched his first competitive goal in the rout over Xerez, and the Frenchman will be hoping that his neat finish can represent the first of a barrage of goals this season. With a strong supporting cast around him, the 21-year-old is capable of great things in the white of Real Madrid.
A test for Pellegrini’s star-studded outfit, but El Madrigal is slowly losing its fortress status. Given Villarreal’s poor form, expect the visitors to maintain their 100 per cent record.
Villarreal 1-2 Real Madrid
Paul Macdonald, Goal.com