La Liga 17/18 Gameweek 24: Espanyol vs Villarreal– Lineups, Preview and Prediction
Struggling Espanyol face a tough clash against top-four chasing Villarreal
17:30 GMT, Sunday 18th February, RCDE Stadium (Barcelona, Spain) Sky Sports Mix
Espanyol may still be eight points clear of the bottom three, yet a run of four games without a win has allowed them to slip down to 15th in the table. The Catalan side have conceded nine goals in that period and are in real danger of being dragged into the relegation picture if things do not begin to pick up soon.
They still remain the only team to have beaten Atletico Madrid all season, however, and came very close to ending Barcelona’s clean record a fortnight ago. If Quique Sanchez Flores can somehow get his team playing at their top level then they will surely rise quickly up the rankings and secure a comfortable top half finish.
Expectations of Villarreal’s challenge top four challenge have cooled recently following a poor run of three consecutive losses in all competitions. The Yellow Submarine are only five points behind Real Madrid, but have played a game less.
Their slip-ups have allowed the likes of Eibar and Real Betis to reenter the European picture and Javier Calleja will be desperate to get his team winning again. A heavy defeat in the Europa League has left them with an uphill second-leg climb and success in La Liga has become even more of a priority.
Last Time Out
Celta Vigo 2-2 Espanyol (La Liga)
Espanyol were extremely fortunate to come away with a point away at Celta Vigo last weekend. The visitors had less than 30% of possession and only two shots on target, but somehow ended up denying Celta the victory.
Leo Baptistao gave Espanyol the lead after only ten minutes, taking advantage of some poor defensive communication.
As the game progressed, Celta began to assert themselves, and drew level after half an hour through a fine header from Maxi Gomez.
A series of stunning saves from Diego Lopez frustrated the hosts, who continued to pepper the Espanyol goal.
Celta could not be denied, however, and Maxi Gomez turned brilliantly to score his second of the game and give his side the lead with ten minutes left to play.
Espanyol did not allow their heads to drop and a well-placed finish from Gerard Moreno completed a real ‘smash-and-grab’.
Lyon 3-1 Villarreal (Europa League Round of 32-First Leg)
Villarreal’s chances of progression in the Europa League are hanging by a thread after a disappointing loss to French side Lyon.
The visitors were second-best in all aspects of the game, and found themselves 2-0 down after two goals from Tanguy Ndombele and Nabil Fekir were scored in the four minutes immediately after the break.
Pablo Fornals managed to pull one back for the away side just after the hour mark, but a fine effort from Memphis Depay in the 83rd minute ensured that Villarreal have a two goal deficit to overturn in the second-leg.
Quique Sanchez Flores will be delighted to be able to pick from a full-strength squad on Sunday afternoon.
Espanyol are further boosted by the return of midfielder Esteban Granero from suspension.
Javier Calleja has a number of injury absentees this weekend.
Defender Ruben Semedo (thigh) and goalkeeper Andres Fernandez (cruciate ligament) are at least a month away from a return.
Midfielder Bruno Soriano (leg) and forward Nicola Sansone (calf) are still struggling to recover from injury and will not be fit to start on Sunday.
More positively, both Daniele Bonera and Rodri will be available for selection having served their suspensions.
Key Battle: Sergi Darder (Espanyol) vs Rodri (Villarreal)
Sergi Darder has been almost ever present for Espanyol this season having moved on loan from Lyon in the summer. The 24-year-old has impressed with his ability to maintain his composure in the middle of the park and the ease and precision of his distribution.
Darder put in a particularly strong display in his side’s 1-1 draw with Barcelona two weeks ago, where he held his own amongst a star-studded midfield, and will be hoping to reach that level of performance once again.
The man faced with the task of marshalling Darder on Sunday will be defensive midfield player Rodri. The Spanish youth international has established himself as one of the most exciting bright young talents in La Liga with a series of assured midfield performances.
The 21-year-old has the qualities required to dominate midfield contests, possessing a potent combination of defensive strength and a fine array of passing. If Villarreal are to assert themselves this weekend, then they will need Rodri to be at his best.
Can Espanyol find their top gear more consistently?
Espanyol find themselves eight points adrift of the top six and are closer to the bottom of the table than the top. It is confusing then, that they have been able to look so comfortable against the two best sides in the league; Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
In their win against Atletico Madrid at the end of December they out-fought and out-thought their opponents at every turn and looked to be a side capable of competing against the very best sides in the league.
To follow up a win against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey with a 1-1 draw in the league requires a lot more than good fortune. Espanyol are capable of playing at a very high level and if they can reach that standard more consistently then they could begin to entertain European ambitions.
Can Villarreal stop conceding so easily?
They main factor behind Villarreal’s sudden downturn in form is their loss of defensive cohesion. The Yellow Submarine have conceded at least two goals in all of their last three La Liga fixtures as well as letting in three away at Lyon in the Europa League.
Defensive fragility has certainly not been a key feature of Villarreal’s season up to this point and they cannot afford to let their confidence drop. Against Lyon in midweek, they were cut apart far too easily and gave themselves little chance of staying in the tie.
Villarreal have the attacking talent to finish in the top six. They must, however, maintain their defensive cohesion and focus if they are to do themselves justice come the end of the season.
Prediction: Espanyol 1-1 Villarreal
Espanyol may have gone five games without a loss, yet they have registered some truly impressive performances in that period. Not only the results, but also the nature of their encounters with Barcelona may give them the confidence needed to raise their level of play. Villarreal have looked set to break into the top four for the past few months, but will struggle to make the top six if they continue to defend as poorly as they have of late.
Can Villarreal turn their defensive fortunes around?
Let us know in the comments section below…