Real Madrid vs Villarreal
Emery meets Zidane with pressure on the champions.
That was the headline I wrote when I previewed the meeting between these sides earlier this season and, six months on, it may as well be identical.
That’s because the mighty Real Madrid are in danger of ending the season empty-handed and that never goes down well among the Los Blancos faithful.
However, before the final weekend of La Liga fixtures, a word of warning: never rule out Real when their backs are against the wall.
If boss Zinedine Zidane had given in to the doubters earlier this term, there is no way his team would still have a chance of retaining the title at this stage.
Instead, Zidane distanced himself from criticism after his Makeshift Madrid settled for a draw recently, and he refused to let his detractors get him down – publicly at least. To his immense credit, his team goes into the final day of the season with hope.
Their array of La Liga 2021 highlights has even led to Karim Benzema being called up to the French squad this summer after a five-year exile.
Whether he is celebrating at the end of the day is unclear, but Saturday’s match should be a milestone for goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who has the chance to become only the seventh goalkeeper in Madrid history to complete an entire La Liga season, joining a list of legendary shotstoppers.
Ricardo Zamora became the first Real goalkeeper to complete an entire Spanish league season in 1932/33.
11 years later, Pepe Banon became the next Real custodian to achieve this feat, followed by Jose Vicente Train in 1960/61.
Antonio Betancort, who enjoyed stunning success at Real Madrid during the 1960s, enjoyed two such seasons before Paco Buyo placed himself into this list – playing 44 matches in the historic ‘play-off’ season of 1986/87 and repeating the achievement in 1993/94.
Then came Iker Casillas who took this feat to new heights with four completed seasons between 2002 and 2010, each with a different coach.
Although he has returned to training, it’s unlikely skipper Sergio Ramos will figure in front of Courtois, nor the injured Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vazquez and Ferland Mendy, plus Toni Kroos, who has contracted COVID-19.
Both Nacho Fernandez and Eder Militao have stepped up in their captain’s absence, while Raphael Varane — who has missed the last four games due to a muscle injury — should be at Zidane’s disposal for a match they must win to stand any chance of overtaking leaders Atletico Madrid.
Their opponents this weekend in Villarreal demolished Sevilla in the last time out but will surely have one eye on next week’s Europa League Final.
Manager Unai Emery got his wish in bringing this match forward 24 hours to allow his team to better prepare their final opponents in Manchester United since they are not in action in England until Sunday.
And while a place in next season’s Europa League is up for grabs for them, it’s still hard to see the Yellow Submarine going all out.
For Villarreal, one suspects their big match is yet to come and if they go behind early on, I do not expect a spirited fightback.
Of their 41 top flight meetings, Villarreal have only tasted victory on four occasions with 14 draws and 23 Real triumphs.
This corresponding fixture last term saw Real seal a 2-1 win to clinch the La Liga title thanks to a Karim Benzema double, before Mario headed one back for Villarreal. What they would give for a similar outcome on Sunday night.
The last time Villarreal beat Real on home turf was in 2015 when an early goal from Roberto Soldado was enough to seal three points.
That was only one of two victories over Real in their last 21 clashes.
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