Good evening! Thank you very much for joining Sports Mole
for tonight's huge La Liga clash between Villarreal
and Real Madrid
at the Estadio de la Ceramica. This game could have a major impact on both the Champions League race and the title race, with a home win putting the pressure on Atletico and an away win seeing a change of leadership at the top of the table for the third time this weekend. Before we take an in-depth look at that, though, let's start with some team news...
VILLARREAL STARTING XI: Asenjo; Gaspar, Musacchio, Ruiz, Costa; Dos Santos, Trigueros, Bruno, Castillejo; Bakambu, Adrian
VILLARREAL SUBS: Cheryshev, Soldado, Gonzalez, Fernandez, Hernandez, Soriano, Rukavina
REAL MADRID STARTING XI: Navas; Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo
REAL MADRID SUBS: Nacho, Rodriguez, Casilla, Kovacic, Vazquez, Morata, Isco
What can we make of those two teams, then? Well, as expected it is all change from the hosts after manager Fran Escriba
made 10 changes to his side for Thursday's Europa League clash with Roma, which was essentially a dead-rubber following their 4-0 home defeat in the first leg of that tie. Borre's solitary goal did give Villarreal the win at the Stadio Olimpico, but that is not enough for him to keep his place in the side or even the squad as he drops out entirely.
has once again made 10 changes for this match as his big hitters return. Cedric Bakambu
and Adrian will lead the line up front, which isn't the most prolific front line based on recent form. Bakambu has struggled to rediscover his form from last season this time around, though, with injury limiting him to just 12 La Liga appearances and only six starts all season, during which time he has managed only two goals. Adrian, meanwhile, is yet to score at all this season.
Villarreal do have Roberto Soldado on the bench following his recent return from injury, with the former Tottenham striker hopeful of making his first La Liga appearance of the campaign. He has a decent record against Madrid having scored four in his last four home La Liga games against Los Blancos, but any appearance is likely to be a cameo one towards the end in order to get some more minutes under his belt.
The only player to keep his place from the win over Roma in midweek is Bruno in midfield, with the likes of Dos Santos, Trigueros, Castillejo, Costa, Ruiz, Musacchio and Gaspar all returning to the starting XI having been rested for European duty. There is also a return in goal for Sergio Asenjo, who has kept more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper in La Liga this season (11). That could be key against the Madrid attacking lineup.
That front three of Madrid's is back to the familiar BBC of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo, with Bale making his first start since November. The Welshman made a goalscoring return to the side recently and will be hoping to continue that form in front of goal after being declared 100% fit by manager Zinedine Zidane
. It would be something of a surprise if he was to play the full 90 minutes here, but he is clearly deemed fit enough to feature from the start.
Bale's Real Madrid debut actually came here against Villarreal, and he scored with his first shot on target on that occasion. It is Cristiano Ronaldo
who, unsurprisingly, enjoys the best record against today's opponents, though. The four-time Ballon d'Or winner has netted 11 times against Villarreal throughout his illustrious career, which is more than any other current La Liga player.
Bale's return is one of two changes made by Zinedine Zidane from the midweek defeat to Valencia, with the other being an enforced change at the heart of the defence. Varane is expected to miss a large chunk of the rest of the season now, and he is replace by Pepe for today's match as the Portuguese centre-back returns to partner Sergio Ramos.
Madrid's midfield trio remains the same as Modric, Casemiro and Kroos continue to patrol the middle of the park, while Carvajal and Marcelo will provide the width behind Bale and Ronaldo from the full-back roles. Navas, as ever, is named between the sticks.
It is close to a full-strength side for Real Madrid, then, but Villarreal will not be daunted by the visit of Los Blancos. They have established themselves as serious European contenders again this season and will not have given up on the idea of qualifying for the Champions League this season. The Yellow Submarine currently sit sixth in the table and cannot move higher or lower this weekend, but a victory would be a big step in the right direction.
A couple of results have already gone against Villarreal this weekend, with Sociedad and Eibar - the teams directly above and below them in the table - both winning, but perhaps the key result for them was Atletico Madrid's late defeat to Barcelona earlier today. That result means that victory for Villarreal here would close the gap to fourth to just three points, while also moving within two of Sociedad and restoring a four-point buffer to Eibar.
Despite their relatively lofty league position, Villarreal do not come into this match in particularly great form having won just three of their last 12 games in all competitions. Things have improved recently, with those three wins coming in their last six outings - during which time they have only been beaten once - but it is still a record that needs improving if they are to break into that top four this season.
Those three wins do include victories in their last two matches, though - the first time they have been victorious in back-to-back games since December - and even when they don't win they are a very difficult team to beat. They have lost just one of their last 10 league matches stretching back to November 27 and are unbeaten in their last four. A win today would also mark consecutive league victories for the first time in 2017.
It is draws which have been the main problem for the Yellow Submarine this season, with no team having shared the spoils on more occasions than Villarreal (nine). The key to turning those draws into wins - as obvious as it may sound - is scoring more goals, so it doesn't help that top scorer Nicola Sansone is currently sidelined. Villarreal's defence record is the best in the entire league, with only 15 goals conceded from 23 matches, but they are the lowest scorers in the top seven.
A league-high five of their 30 goals have come from the penalty spot too, so creating things in open play has been an issue for Villarreal this season. They have kept a clean sheet in six of their last 10 league outings, though. Perhaps a bigger concern for Fran Escriba heading into this match will be his side's home form, with Villarreal having won just one of their last seven games in front of their own fans across all competitions - a run that stretches back to December 12.
Another defeat today would make it back-to-back losses at this ground for the first time since April 2015 following their 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Roma last week, but Villarreal do have a very good record against fellow teams in the top six this season. Indeed, they sat top of that mini-league at the start of the weekend, winning three and losing none of their seven matches against their fellow high flyers. Escriba's team are yet to beat a top-three side, though, having drawing all four of their games against Sevilla, Barca and Real.
Even so, an unbeaten record in that top-six mini-league is still something Madrid cannot boast, with one of their two league defeats this season coming at the hands of Sevilla, who have made this into a three-horse title race this season. Real have still fared quite well against those around them, in the table, picking up 11 points from a possible 18 in games against teams currently in the top six, but not quite as well as Villarreal.
A win this evening is hugely important for Los Blancos as they look to keep the title race firmly in their own hands having suffered a big setback in midweek. Zidane's men were expected to move four points clear at the top of the table with one of their games in hand when they visited the Mestalla to take on Valencia, but they found themselves two goals down within 10 minutes and it was a deficit they could not recover from.
That result opened the door for both Sevilla and Barcelona this weekend, and both sides made full use of it. Sevilla scraped past Real Betis yesterday to move top on the head-to-head rule before Lionel Messi came to Barcelona's rescue again, scoring a late winner to fire the Catalans two points clear. Only a win tonight would see Madrid end the weekend where they started it, although it should be noted that the title is still in their hands even if they lose here as they still have a game in hand to play.
The prospect of falling to consecutive defeats for the second time in the space of little over a month is not one that Zidane will want to consider, but worryingly for the Frenchman Madrid have already lost more league games in 2017 than they did throughout the whole of 2016. Los Blancos had gone 28 league games without defeat before losing to Sevilla and, coupled with the defeat to Valencia on Wednesday, they have now lost as many matches in their last six outings as they had in their previous 42.
In all competitions Madrid have 'only' won five of their last 10 matches, which would be a perfectly satisfactory record for most clubs around the world but represents a dip in form as far as Madrid are concerned. With Atletico surely now out of the picture and Barcelona nowhere near their best this season it looked as though Madrid were nailed-on for their first title in five years, but they have just begun to falter recently and another defeat today would be enough to set the alarm bells ringing.
One of the biggest concerns for Zidane right now will be his side's away form, with Madrid having won just one of their five away games since the turn of their year and also only one of their last six domestic outings on the road. Their loss at the Mestalla on Wednesday means that another defeat here tonight would make it back-to-back away losses for the first time since December 2015 - or March 2015 if you solely count La Liga.
Even when Madrid do lose, though, they always seem to be able to find the back of the net. Indeed, they have scored at least once in each of their last 43 games in all competitions, including 34 La Liga outings on the bounce since a 1-0 defeat to city rivals Atletico 12 months ago. Should they score again today - against the league's stingiest defence - then they would equal the La Liga record for number of consecutive games in which they have scored - currently held by Barcelona from 1944.
PREDICTION: Right, we're 10 minutes away from kickoff here, which means that it is time for a prediction! This is a tough one to call, with Villarreal posing a difficult test for Madrid here. The Yellow Submarine haven't been particularly impressive at home over the last month or two, but Madrid haven't been much better on the road either. Zidane will want a response from the Valencia defeat, but I'm going to go for a 1-1 draw.
Unsurprisingly, Real Madrid have the better record in meetings between these two sides in recent years, winning eight of their last 13 La Liga clashes and losing just once in that time. That is a run which stretches back to May 2009, although the solitary Villarreal win did come in this very fixture last term when Roberto Soldado - on the bench today - scored what proved to be the winner after just eight minutes.
It is harder to call when it comes to matches at the Estadio de la Ceramica - formerly known as El Madrigal. Madrid have a very mixed record here over the past decade and more, winning four, drawing four and losing four of their last 12 visits stretching back to 2004. It is not one of their happiest hunting grounds in the league, which makes it all the more difficult to predict what we might see here today.
The reverse fixture at the Bernabeu in September ended all square, with both goals in the 1-1 draw coming immediately either side of half time. Bruno gave the visitors the lead right on the stroke of the interval, only for Sergio Ramos to restore parity in the 48th minute for what proved to be the first of four consecutive draws for Madrid.
Right, we're just about ready to go here. The players are out and the spotlight is one Real Madrid especially - can they react to wins for Sevilla and Barcelona already this weekend?
KICKOFF: Here we go then! Villarreal get us underway at the Estadio de la Ceramica!
Madrid have the first shot on goal after less than three minutes, and it is no surprise that Ronaldo is the man to have the early potshot. He drags it well wide of the near post, but it is an early sighter nonetheless.
Already Madrid have taken control of possession and have pinned Villarreal back into their own half. The visitors almost break into the box as Modric collects a cross from Bale, but Bruno defends it well and manages to sneak a goal kick out of it too.
Speculative effort from Castillejo as he lets the ball run across his body from a throw-in before attempting a half-volley from all of 30 yards out. It never looks like troubling Navas as he watches it fly a long way high and wide of the target.
Decent spell of possession from Villarreal as they begin to settle into the game. In the very early stages they looked like they might invite pressure from Madrid, but they have grown into the game in the last couple of minutes.
SAVE! The first chance of the match falls to Villarreal! Trigueros drops the ball back to Mario Gaspar, who manages to dig a shot out from underneath his feet that forces a flying save from Navas.
So far so good as far as Villarreal are concerned. Fran Escriba will be pretty happy with what he has seen from his side in the opening quarter of an hour or so of this match.
This never looked like it would be an easy game for Madrid and, after 15 minutes that view has only been strengthened. Villarreal are more than holding their own in this one, keeping the likes of Bale and Ronaldo quiet so far.
Very nearly a chance for Madrid as Modric wins the ball in midfielder before lifting it through for Ronaldo, who looks to be the favourite to get there. However, Gaspar covers really well and is able to shepherd the ball back to his keeper.
Not much to report in terms of goalmouth action so far, with both sides struggling to find a way through in the opening 20 minutes here. That Navas save is the only sight of goal either team has really had.
Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema, making their first start together for 120 days, have not been able to get into this game yet. Having said that, it was a similar story with Barcelona's front three against Atletico earlier today and Messi still managed to have the decisive say on that game.
Neat footwork from Adrian as he ducks inside and out before trying to lift a cross towards the back post which Ramos needs to get his head to to flick it behind for a corner.
CHANCE! Madrid finally created their first big chance of the match! Marcelo does well to work a yard on the left and stand a cross up to the back post, where Benzema gets there ahead of Ruiz. It is not a clear header from the French striker, but it still takes a brilliant save from Asenjo to deny him from point-blank range as he claws it away.
Asenjo hurt himself while making that save and requires treatment here, but it looks as though he will be fine to continue. Villarreal will certainly not want to lose him!
This is better from Madrid now as they come forward down the left again, but this time the final ball is lacking, with Ronaldo putting too much on his delivery.
CHANCE! Brilliant from Castillejo as he beats Marcelo all ends up down the right before playing a low ball into the area. He can't pick out a yellow shirt, but Villarreal keep the attack alive and Trigueros's effort is very well blocked before it can test the keeper.
CHANCE! An even bigger chance for Villarreal here! Carvajal is caught out of position down the left and Costa lifts his cross into the area. It is just too high for Bakambu but Castillejo is steaming in behind him and catches it on the half-volley at full stretch. He can't control his shot, though, and it zips narrowly over the crossbar.
SAVE! Villarreal are getting a lot of joy down that left at the moment! This time Bakambu works himself some space with some good footwork before firing a cross/shot into the middle that Navas palms into a dangerous area. Fortunately for the keeper, there was no-one coming in for the follow-up there.
Sergio Asenjo is still struggling with the knock he picked up earlier, and he has dropped to the ground again here to receive further treatment. It looked rather innocuous and may have just landed heavily, but he may not be able to continue after all.
VILLARREAL SUB: Sure enough there is the change as Asenjo is replaced by Andres Fernandez, who makes his first league appearance for the club.
Fernandez is welcomed into the action with as comfortable as save as he could have hoped for. Carvajal bursts down the right and lifts a cross over to the back post, but Benzema is backtracking to get there and so cannot get any power behind his volley, which the sub Villarreal keeper gratefully collects.
Good work from Castillejo, who has been lively so far tonight. He dips past a couple of white shirts and continues to chase what looks like a lost ball, eventually winning a corner for his efforts.
Real Madrid have not been allowed to get going in this match so far. Villarreal have been the better team in this first half without creating a great deal themselves, and Madrid will need an improvement if they are to regain their place at the top of the table tonight.
Villarreal have actually enjoyed 57% of the possession in this match, including a really good spell at the moment. The hosts have been very impressive so far, but they will want to show a little more in the final third.
There will be three minutes of added time at the end of this first half.
Ronaldo has been very quiet in this first half, but he may have a late chance to test the keeper here as he wins a free kick. It is a long way from goal, though, and Ronaldo surprisingly doesn't fancy a crack!
Instead, Kroos lifts it into the box and the linesman's flag immediately goes up for offside.
HALF TIME: Villarreal 0-0 Real Madrid
The first half comes to an end at the Estadio de la Ceramica and we are still goalless between Villarreal and Real Madrid. It has been a very intriguing match so far despite a relative lack of goalmouth action, with Villarreal enjoying the better of that opening 45 minutes. It is still all to play for, though, and Madrid will grow increasingly desperate for that breakthrough which could take them top of the table.
Villarreal may have created more chances, but the best opening of the half fell to Real Madrid. Marcelo has been caught out a few times defensively, but he did well to work a yard in the attacking third before standing up a cross towards the far post. Benzema rose above his man but couldn't get a clean header on the ball and Asenjo was able to claw it away from point-blank range.
Villarreal were the first to test the opposition keeper when Gaspar's goalbound effort was kept out by a full-stretch Navas in the 11th minute, while there was a spell around the half-hour mark when the hosts really put the pressure on. Trigueros first saw a shot well blocked before Castillejo, who has been the standout player of the match so far, put a great chance over the bar having launched himself at the ball. Bakambu then drew another stop from Navas from a tight angle, but the Real Madrid keeper has not been too overly worked tonight.
KICKOFF: Real Madrid get us back underway for this second half - can they find a breakthrough that will take them to the top of the table?
CHANCE! Much better from Real Madrid at the start of this second half, and they should be ahead here. Bale cuts inside and drops the ball back for Benzema, who doesn't catch his shot well enough and sends it straight at Fernandez. He should have done much better there.
GOAL! Villarreal 1-0 Real Madrid (Manuel Trigueros)
Villarreal draw first blood! It could be a huge goal in the title race as Madrid fall behind courtesy of a Trigueros strike, and it is no more than Villarreal deserve. Adrian, not for the first time tonight, looks to clip a cross towards the back post when he could have gone for goal himself, and Marcelo's clearance drops right at the feet of Trigueros. He fires his volley into the ground and past a helpless Navas to give his side the lead.
What have Madrid got in response to that, then? Benzema's missed chance early in the half looks like it could be even more costly now, but remember that Madrid always seem to score - it is 43 matches in all competitions since they last drew a blank.
Madrid have the chance to provide a quick response here as they win a free kick in a good crossing position...
It is played in towards Ramos but, while Musacchio can't get a decisive contact on the ball initially, he does win the second ball to clear his lines.
GOAL! Villarreal 2-0 Real Madrid (Cedric Bakambu)
Now then! Madrid have a huge task ahead of them as Villarreal double their advantage just six minutes after taking the lead! Bruno is under no pressure as he slides a pass through for Bakambu, who takes the ball away from Ramos before slotting his finish past Navas and into the bottom corner.
VILLARREAL SUB: The hosts are forced into another change here as Adrian limps off to be replaced by Denis Cheryshev.
REAL MADRID SUB: The visitors make a change of their own after that second goal, with Isco replacing Casemiro.
CHANCE! Half a chance for Madrid to pull a goal back as Ronaldo flicks a header goalwards, but Fernandez watches it all the way wide and looked to have it covered anyway.
OFF THE POST! Madrid are getting closer! They come within inches of hauling themselves back into the game as Ronaldo adjusts his body well to fire a magnificent left-footed volley towards the corner, but it crashes off the post. Fernandez has already given it up and the ball hits him before Benzema's follow-up effort is deflected over.
SHOT! The resulting corner is only cleared as far as Marcelo, who drills an effort a few yards over.
SHOT! Villarreal come forward at the other end in search of a killer third goal as Castillejo tries one with the outside of his left boot, but the angle is against him and his shot slams into the side-netting.
GOAL! Villarreal 2-1 Real Madrid (Gareth Bale)
This game has burst into life in this second half! Bale pulls one back on his first start since November, ghosting between two defenders to nod Carvajal's cross into the bottom corner. Nothing the keeper could do there and it is very much game on now!
CHANCE! This is a chance by Ronaldo's standards! The ball breaks to him on the edge of the box and he tries an instinctive volley, but slices it over the bar. He expected better of himself there, but it was a difficult chance.
Real Madrid are looking dangerous every single time they come forward now. Villarreal had looked so solid defensively for much of the match, but since that second goal it has been pretty much one-way traffic.
Villarreal still have the lead in this game, but the momentum is now very much with Madrid. They have reacted brilliantly to conceding that second goal and look a lot more capable of getting something out of this game at 2-1 down than they did at 1-0 down.
PENALTY TO REAL MADRID!
Huge drama here as the referee points to the spot - a decision which has infuriated the Villarreal players and staff. Fran Escriba has been banished from the technical area, and there have been a few yellow cards too.
GOAL! Villarreal 2-2 Real Madrid (Cristiano Ronaldo, penalty)
After a long, long delay Ronaldo powers the penalty home to restore parity, but boy is it controversial! The penalty is given for a handball against Bruno, but it looks harsh on first viewing after a mis-hit Kroos effort was blocked by a Villarreal defender and bounced up against Bruno. The replays prove that it is even harsher than that - the ball didn't even hit the arm of Bruno! Villarreal are incensed but, when it all calms down, Ronaldo's penalty beats the keeper with a power spot kick.
VILLARREAL SUB: The hosts make a change in the aftermath of all of that, with Rodri Hernandez replacing Trigueros.
REAL MADRID SUB:
The visitors make a change of their own as Alvaro Morata
comes on in place of Benzema.
In the midst of all that fury after the penalty it looked as though Bruno and Soldado - the latter of whom is one the bench - were shown yellow cards in addition to the manager being sent from the touchline. There was another yellow shown too, but I'm not quite sure who to.
This has been an onslaught ever since Villarreal's second goal, but Madrid still need another goal if they are to finish the weekend top of the table. The way this match is going, I would not bet against them getting it.
GOAL! Villarreal 2-3 Real Madrid (Alvaro Morata)
They may have been given a helping hand, but what a comeback this is from Madrid. There is a bit of controversy about this one too as Villarreal want a foul from a challenge by Isco in the build-up, but the referee allows play to continue and Marcelo swings a beauty of a cross into the box that Morata meets with a thumping header. The keeper could perhaps keep it out, but the header is firm and low and just sneaks over the line.
This has been a brilliant second half, it must be said. Villarreal thought they had a huge three points when they went 2-0 up, but Madrid have shown the mark of champions by fighting back against the league's best defence.
Strange one for Bale here as he goes down clutching his leg, but replays show that there was no contact from the opposition. It is not a dive, but more like Bale has accidentally kicked himself. Fortunately, the injury does not look too serious.
REAL MADRID SUB: That will still be Bale's last action, though, as he is replaced by Lucas Vazquez.
CHANCE! Almost a chance for a Madrid fourth as Ramos gets in front of his man to steer a header towards goal, but he puts it into the ground and it bounces up over the top.
CHANCE! Big chance at the other end for Villarreal to rescue a point at the death! Again it is unconvincing defending from Marcelo as he turns his back on a cross and the ball hits him before dropping to Dos Santos, who fires the rebound wide.
We will have four minutes of added time at the end of this dramatic match. Time for one last twist?
Almost a chance for Villarreal again as Cheryshev plays the ball through for Bakambu, but Navas is alert to collect it.
CHANCE! What a chance for Madrid to wrap this one up once and for all! Villarreal's defence almost give up as Madrid advance down the right flank, with Vazquez playing the ball across for a completely unmarked Morata. It is a sitter for the striker, but he puts it off target.
FULL TIME: Villarreal 2-3 Real Madrid
Well, what a match that turned out to be! There wasn't a great deal of goalmouth action in the first half, but that second 45 minutes more than made up for it! Sevilla and Barcelona fans would have been celebrating just a readily as Villarreal's supporters when they took a 2-0 lead through Manuel Trigueros
and Cedric Bakambu, but Madrid stormed back - with a little help from the referee - to pick up a dramatic and potentially pivotal three points in the title race. Goals from Bale, Ronaldo and Morata fire them back to the top of the table, where they now sit one point clear with a game in hand.
Right, it is time for me to bid you adieu following that five-goal thriller, but if you fancy reliving the action from Madrid's stunning comeback then I will leave our match report here
for you. From me, though, it is goodbye for now!