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Real Madrid is a club which has always defined itself by the Champions League. Los Blancos won the first five editions of the competition (back when it was known as the European Cup) and the Spanish giants have remained the most successful team in the tournament ever since. Madrid have lifted the trophy on 13 occasions, which puts them some way clear of the next most successful side, the seven-time winners AC Milan.
Ahead of their last-16 tie with Paris Saint-Germain, Madrid are only the seventh-favorites to win this season’s edition of the Champions League. But a victory in La Liga this weekend could potentially increase their chances of glory on the continental stage. If Madrid beat Villarreal, they will end the weekend at least six points clear at the top of the table. That is a not an insurmountable buffer, but it is a significant one nonetheless.
Indeed, it is difficult to envisage a side other than Madrid winning the title. Carlo Ancelotti’s side have a superior goal difference to Sevilla. They also have the edge on the head-to-head record, which in effect gives them a seven-point advantage at the summit of the standings. No one has scored as many goals as Madrid this season, and only Sevilla have conceded fewer. The Blancos have won the most games and lost the joint-fewest.
This is not a vintage Madrid side. There is a sense that the team is in transition, with at least one big-name player likely to arrive this summer. A slender 1-0 triumph over Granada last time out will not exactly have left PSG shaking in their boots. Yet Madrid have a knack for getting results when they need them most, and we can expect them to be fully focused on Saturday’s match before turning their attention back to the Champions League.
After a 1-0 defeat by Sevilla at the start of December, Villarreal slipped to 13th place in the La Liga table. Their manager, Unai Emery, had been strongly linked with the Newcastle United job a few weeks earlier. The former Arsenal boss appeared to be on the brink of returning to the Premier League at one point, only to withdraw from negotiations late on. Whatever the precise reasons for him doing so, Emery was accused of having had his head turned.
Since then, though, Villarreal’s form has been excellent. They have won six and drawn one of their last eight matches, amassing 19 points from a possible 24 – a better record than any other team in the division over the same period. Most impressively of all, those eight games yielded 22 goals. Emery has never been known to be a particularly attacking manager, but his team has been scoring goals for fun over the past two months.
Villarreal have risen from 13th to sixth spot in the standings, with the Champions League places now only three points away. It will not be easy to finish inside them, as their two main rivals could be Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Regardless, the Yellow Submarine are in a much better place than they were at the start of December.
Having said that, there is no doubt Saturday’s game will be Villarreal’s toughest test yet. Last weekend’s 2-0 triumph over Real Betis was impressive, but very few of the club’s recent wins have come against teams above them in the table. Villarreal drew with an out-of-form Atletico Madrid side last month, while their last two defeats were by Barcelona and Sevilla. This is a side that struggles when playing against strong opposition.
The fact Madrid will play PSG in a few days’ time could work in Villarreal’s favor, but Ancelotti is an experienced manager and he will ensure his players are not looking too far ahead. And while Villarreal’s recent results have been excellent, Madrid have been in better form for longer with 10 wins in their last 13 La Liga assignments.
Madrid also have better quality players, and while that does not always determine the outcome of soccer matches, it is hard to overlook the generosity of odds of +165 on an away win here. Madrid are comfortably the best team in Spain at the moment and they should demonstrate that once again at the Estadio de la Ceramica on Saturday.
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|Villarreal vs Real Madrid Information|
|Teams||Villarreal vs Real Madrid|
|Location||Estadio de la Ceramica, Villarreal, Spain|
|Time||Saturday, 12 February 2022, 10.15 AM 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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