Real Madrid had a strange week. After drawing with Athletic Bilbao, a result that cost them the second-place slot in La Liga, the club went out and dismantled Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey, winning 3-0.
With Barcelona reeling a bit of late in league play (just one win and two draws in their last four La Liga matches), Los Blancos find themselves tied with the Catalans and just three points behind Atletico.
They'll be expected to stay in the running against Villarreal. Though the visitors are fifth in La Liga this season, Real Madrid have nine wins and a loss in 10 La Liga home matches. Villarreal will take confidence from the fact that they drew the first meeting between these teams, 2-2, but Real Madrid are a much more dangerous team at home.
When: Saturday, February 8 at 2 p.m. ET
Saturday, February 8 at 7 p.m. GMT
Where: Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, Spain
Watch: beIN Sports; beIN Sports Play; Sky Sports 3 (U.K.)
Chances: Real Madrid (76.3 percent), Villarreal (9.7 percent) and draw (14 percent), according to Bloomberg Sports
Obviously, the key storyline is how Real Madrid will cope without their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is banned for three games after receiving a straight red against Athletic Bilbao.
Of course, if any team is built to cope with such a huge loss, it's Real Madrid. While the team isn't pleased with the decision, there's a plan in place in Ronaldo's absence, as Dermot Corrigan of ESPN FC writes:
“Nobody is happy with this,” [manager Carlo] Ancelotti said. “Three games without playing is not normal. That is why we have appealed. Three games for what he did is not normal.”
[Gareth] Bale had been expected to start Wednesday’s match against Atletico but was unexpectedly pulled out of the squad just hours before kick-off. Ancelotti was keen to stress that there was no new injury issue, stressing that he had merely wanted to keep the Wales winger fresh to stand in for Ronaldo on Saturday.
“There is no setback,” Ancelotti said. “[Bale] is fine. On Saturday we cannot use Cristiano. With Gareth fresh it could be very good for us, so I preferred to give him a rest. For sure Bale will play on Saturday.”
Along with Bale, Real Madric can also employ Jese Rodriguez (who has scored in each of his last three games) and Angel Di Maria on the wings in Ronaldo's absence. Not a shabby collection of talent as a team's backup plan, huh?
Nicholas Rigg of ESPN FC has more on the impressive 20-year-old, Jese:
He featured prominently for Madrid in the matches that followed through a perfect January for the club and he was eventually, and deservedly, rewarded with a first league start in Bilbao at the weekend. Aptly, he scored Madrid's goal in a 1-1 draw at the new San Mames.
He has the raw ability of a player so young, but also plays with an old head on his young shoulders. He has the pace to beat his man and the anticipation and class to finish a move off, as demonstrated against Bilbao and Atleti. He has a confidence that is required to survive at Madrid, too.
But the main man now will be Bale, who has been brilliant when he's managed to stay healthy. In 14 La Liga appearances, he's scored eight goals and seven assists, while earning a 7.6 average match rating from WhoScored, good for 10th in the league.
For Villarreal, keeping Real Madrid off the score sheet at home will be virtually impossible—Real Madrid lead La Liga with 61 goals—so they'll need to try to keep pace somehow. That means players like Ikechukwu Uche (12 goals and an assist) and Giovani dos Santos (eight goals, seven assists) will need to come up huge.
But will they be enough against a deep, talented Los Blancos side?
Which team wins?
Villarreal has been quite good this season—and they have draws against Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid to brag about, albeit at home—but they'll be overmatched at the Bernabeu. The return of Bale is trouble for the visitors, as is the inspired play of late from players like Jese and Luka Modric.
Villarreal will put up a fight, but they're simply in a lower weight class. Real Madrid win, 3-1.