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We are only at the start of January but it is fair to say Atletico Madrid are already out of the La Liga title race. Many pundits, fans and onlookers picked out the champions as their favorites to finish on top of the pile once more, but things have not gone to plan in the first half of the season. Currently 14 points adrift of Real Madrid in top spot, it would take a near-perfect record from now until the end of the campaign for Atletico to get their hands on the prize for the second year in a row.
Up until the end of November, a title tilt looked possible. After a 4-1 thrashing of Cadiz Simeone’s side sat second in the standings, four points behind first-placed Madrid. Since then, however, there has been very little for Atletico fans to cheer. Four consecutive defeats before the winter break represented the worst such run of Simeone’s decade-long tenure. Even after a 2-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano last weekend, Atletico are closer to mid-table than they are to top spot.
This is probably the most talented squad Simeone has had during his time as a manager in the Spanish capital, but so far this season he has struggled to mold the various parts into a functioning collective. This has been a problem in attack, where Simeone is still searching for the right combinations, but also at the back. Atletico have conceded 22 goals in their first 19 games, compared to 10 in the first half of last season.
A second-place finish is still within reach for the Colchoneros, and that would be far from a disastrous outcome – especially if they can also reach the latter stages of the Champions League. At the same time, it will take more than one win against Rayo Vallecano before Atletico can be proclaimed to be back to their best.
Villarreal struggled for consistency and wins in the first few months of the season. The Yellow Submarine drew four of their first six games, then lost three of their next four to sit 13th after a dozen matches. Unai Emery came close to taking charge of Newcastle United, and Villarreal showed few signs that they were ready to compete for a top-four finish.
Even at the start of last month Emery’s side were toiling in the bottom half of the standings. Then, all of a sudden, Villarreal hit their stride. Four wins on the bounce have lifted them up to eighth place; they will be just one point behind Atletico if they triumph on Sunday. Most impressively (and somewhat unexpectedly), Villarreal have looked thrilling in attack. They have scored five goals for two games in a row, and found the net 14 times in their last four outings.
The 5-0 victory over Levante to start 2022 was one of Villarreal’s best all-round displays under Emery. This is a team full of confidence right now, and they will be sufficiently emboldened to take the game to Atletico Madrid this weekend.
The Africa Cup of Nations gets under way on Sunday, and Villarreal are one of the La Liga teams who will be most affected. Boulaye Dia, Aissa Mendi, Samuel Chukwueze and Serge Aurier are all in Cameroon, but Villarreal should have the strength in depth to cope without them.
Emery and Simeone are two managers who pride themselves on their ability to produce hard-to-beat teams with solid defenses and well-organized structures out of possession. When the two coaches lock horns, under 2.5 goals would usually be an astute choice. On this occasion, though, there is reason to believe we could be treated to a more entertaining affair.
For starters, Villarreal are scoring goals for fun at the moment. Emery will not want to halt his team’s momentum, so he will encourage them to be proactive in front of their own fans at the Estadio de la Ceramica. Villarreal have now scored 31 goals this term – the same amount as Atletico, and a tally bettered only by Real Madrid (41) and Real Betis (32).
Atletico are not short of quality in the final third either, even if Simeone has not always found the best way to utilize it. There were signs of improvement in the 2-0 triumph over Rayo Vallecano, and Atletico will hope to carry that into this game.
Both teams have a strong incentive to beat the other, given that they could end up being rivals for a top-four finish. That could produce a relatively open encounter, especially if the deadlock is broken early on. Go for over 2.5 goals in this one.
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|Villarreal vs Atletico Madrid Information|
|Teams||Villarreal vs Atletico Madrid|
|Location||Estadio de la Ceramica, Villarreal, Spain|
|Time||Sunday, 9 January 2022, 15.00 PM EST|
|How to watch||ESPN|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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