Real Madrid entertain Villarreal at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, hoping to kickstart their 2018, after two lackluster draws in their three games thus far in the new year.
Zinedine Zidane’s side have had a troublesome defense of their league title from last season, and are currently languishing in fourth place, an astonishing 16 points behind leaders Barcelona.
Despite such a chasm between themselves and the top, Madrid will be looking to wrestle together any kind of momentum they can, in the unlikely scenario that Barcelona relinquish the stranglehold they currently have on the league.
Meanwhile, Villarreal – only four points behind Los Blancos in sixth position – will be desperate to bounce back from their Copa Del Rey exit to Leganes in midweek with an improbable victory in the capital.
The two clubs have had some entertaining clashes over the years, with Real unsurprisingly predominantly coming out on top, sometimes in emphatic fashion, with four and five goal margins not unheard of.
Their defeat of the yellow submarine last season was less convincing than normal, however, as Real were forced to come back from two goals down in the second half.
They eventually ran out 3-2 winners, with all three goals scored past the 64 minute mark, and the now Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata completing the dramatic comeback in the 83rd minute.
Another pulsating encounter took place in February 2014. Gareth Bale opened the scoring with a delicate chip in the seventh minute, before assisting Karim Benzema for his side’s second score 18 minutes later.
Villarreal grabbed one back just before half time, when Mario Gaspar blasted his first time shot into the net. Current Stoke forward Jese Rodriguez then replenished Real’s two goal lead with another delightful chip, before Giovani Dos Santos wrestled back momentum with a stunning free kick.
Nevertheless, the valiant efforts of the Yellow Submarine were to no avail, with Benzema scoring his second of the night late on to secure Madrid a 4-2 victory.
Carlos Bacca v Nacho
With Villarreal’s top scorer this season, Cedric Bakambu, set to become the most expensive African footballer of all time following his £65m move to the Chinese Super Ligue side Beijing Guoan, their scoring responsibilities now rest with the veteran Carlos Bacca.
The Colombian striker, who moved from AC Milan in the summer, has thus far failed to find his shooting boots on his return to Spain, with only five goals registered in La Liga at this time.
However, with his opposing center back, Nacho, set to play his third game in a week, the 31 year old has an opportunity to regain his old goalscoring form.
Gareth Bale v Mariano Barbosa
The Welshman’s first start since his return from the calf injury he suffered last year was, at least personally, a successful one.
He scored both of Madrid’s goals in the acrimonious draw with Celta Vigo, and will no doubt be looking to back up the performance with further goals this weekend.
In his way, stands Villarreal’s 33 year old goalkeeper Mariano Barbosa, who has collected the fourth most clean sheets in La Liga this term (six). If Barbosa and his defense can hold firm, it could be another frustrating match for Real.
Zinedine Zidane’s side will again be without club talisman Sergio Ramos, as the club look to take no risks with their captain’s recovery ahead of the pivotal Champions League tie with PSG next month.
Elsewhere, Dani Carvajal is eligible to play following the completion of his suspension obtained during El Clasico.
Villarreal, meanwhile, will be without their top scorer Bakambu, after his aforementioned transfer, while their center back Victor Ruiz is also out due to suspension.
Long-term absentees Bruno Soriano, Roberto Soriano and Nicolas Sansone remain sidelined indefinitely, while Andres Fernandez and Ruben Semedo will not return till February and March respectively.
Potential Real Madrid Starting Lineup: Navas; Carvajal, Nacho, Varane, Marcelo; Kroos, Modric, Casemiro; Isco; Bale, Ronaldo.
Potential Villarreal Starting Lineup: Barbosa; J Costa, Gonzalez, Bonera, Mario; Hernandez, Castillejo, Trigueros, Raba; Bacca, Unal.
Despite Villarreal’s solid defensive platform and resolve shown throughout the season, the lack of attacking threat they possess, exacerbated by Bakambu’s departure, will hinder them.
Compare that with Madrid’s near newfound firepower with the return of Gareth Bale alongside Ronaldo, and they should run out comfortable winners.
Prediction: Real Madrid 3-1 Villarreal