What: Spanish La Liga
Who: Real Madrid (2nd; 44 points) vs Villarreal (3rd; 36 points)
When: Sunday, 9th January, 2011, at 18:00 UK time
Where: Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain

Keeping Up the Pace

Ever since their humiliating defeat to Barcelona little more over a month ago, Real Madrid have been restless in the pursuit of their Catalan foes who, to their credit, do not appear to be taking their foot off the gas any time soon. However, with a fixture against third-placed Villarreal just around the corner, José Mourinho knows very well that his team must also be firing on all cylinders, should they want to benefit from any possible Barcelona slip-up.

Fresh off the heels of an 8-0 win over Levante at the Santiago Bernabeu during their Copa del Rey first leg match, Mourinho chose to field a second-string side in the return match in Valencia on Thursday, a game that the capital club ended up losing 2-0. The Portuguese tactician however, belittled the importance of the second leg, saying that the important business was already done when the two teams met last week: “"I cannot be critical of my team. It was always going to be a tough match, but we did not pay the necessary attention to it", acknowledged the “Special One”.

Comeback Win

While Los Blancos were passing the ball comfortably, waiting for the 90 minutes to pass in Valencia, Villarreal scored an epic comeback against neighbours Valencia, and through it, securing a spot in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey against Sevilla. Now they prepare to meet second-placed Real Madrid, who despite fielding a weaker side in the cup; will be surely eager to collect three points when they play hosts to the Yellow Submarine at the Santiago Bernabeu.

2-0 down against Valencia at their own El Madrigal, Juan Carlos Garrido’s half-time speech worked wonders for his team, who came back to hammer four goals past Valencia in the second half, courtesy of a Giuseppe Rossi brace, Santiago Cazorla – one of La Liga’s best players this term – and Marco Ruben. Speaking after the game, an ecstatic Garrido paid tribute to his team’s fighting spirit, saying that the match was won because his squad carried out his instructions to the letter. They will have to repeat the trick, and have a little luck, to compete with Los Blancos.


Recent form

Real Madrid:
Real Madrid 8-0 Levante (22/12; Copa del Rey)
Getafe 2-3 Real Madrid (03/01; La Liga)
Levante 2-0 Real Madrid (06/01; Copa del Rey)

Valencia 0-0 Villarreal (21/12; Copa del Rey)
Villarreal 2-0 Almeria (03/01; La Liga)
Villarreal 4-2 Valencia (06/01; Copa del Rey)

Key absences

Real Madrid: Jerzy Dudek; Gonzalo Higuain; Alvaro Arbeloa (suspended); Pepe

Villarreal: Carlos Marchena; Nilmar; Marcos Senna

Players to watch

Real Madrid – Angel di Maria: Surely Real Madrid’s best player this term – after Cristiano Ronaldo – Di Maria has led his team when all hope seemed to be lost at times, such as in the narrow 1-0 over Sevilla. Establishing a wonderful balance to Real Madrid’s flank, opposite Ronaldo, the Argentine’s role is set to expand, with his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain’s possible season-ending injury and Karim Benzema’s multiple below-par performances.

Villarreal – Giuseppe Rossi: The fact that Rossi’s striking partner Nilmar was facing a spell on the sidelines did not trouble the American-born Italian international, who has shown that he can play a key role in Yellow Submarines victories in the most crucial games – none more so than against Valencia in the Copa del Rey. However, the striker will surely face a tough task as Mourinho has strengthened Madrid’s defensive awareness.

Match prediction

While Real Madrid have struggled at times on the road, they have nonetheless been imperious at home this season, an advantage that they surely will exploit every time they step onto the Bernabeu pitch. Higuain’s absence remains their most important concern, but Mourinho’s attacking force remains strong even without the Argentine, and the fact that Villarreal are missing a number of important players themselves could even make it more difficult for the Valencia outfit. A final 3-1 score in favour of the hosts looks likely.