17:30 GMT, Sunday 18th March, Estadio de la Ceramica (Vila-real, Spain) Sky Sports Football
Villarreal have been struggling in La Liga of late and are in real danger of slipping out of the top six. Their win against Las Palmas last week was only their second victory in nine competitive fixtures. The Yellow Submarine currently occupy sixth-place and sit only a one point ahead of Girona, who are themselves in excellent form.
Qualification for next season’s UEFA Champions League is highly unlikely as they trail fourth-placed Valencia by a 12 point margin. A disappointing defeat over two legs at the hands of Lyon in the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 has further added to their present woe.
Unless Javier Calleja can turn his side’s fortunes around soon, then they may well miss out on European competition at any level next season.
The chances of Atletico Madrid catching up with league-leaders Barcelona were dealt a significant blow after losing at the Nou Camp earlier this month. Los Rojiblancos have had a stellar campaign in the league nonetheless, having lost only twice in 28 games. They still trail first-place by eight points but are well-placed to take advantage of an unlikely Barcelona capitulation.
Finishing above their great city rivals Real Madrid will provide Diego Simeone’s side with enough motivation in the short-term. They presently hold a seven point lead over last season’s champions, to the certain delight of their supporters.
Atleti’s best chance of silverware may lie in the UEFA Europa League, but a runners-up spot in La Liga would be an impressive achievement in itself.
Last Time Out
Las Palmas 0-2 Villarreal (La Liga)
The Yellow Submarine responded to back-to-back losses with a hard-won victory over struggling Las Palmas.
The visitors struggled to retain possession throughout, yet looked far the more dangerous team across the 90 minutes.
It looked as though Villarreal were set to go three games without a victory after a turgid first hour.
Their fortunes began to change, however, after Carlos Bacca found space to finish powerfully in the 67th minute and confidence slowly began to spread through the away side.
Villarreal struggled to finish the game off, but eventually grabbed their second goal through a penalty from Nicola Sansone in the dying moments.
Lokomotiv Moscow 1-5 (1-8 on aggregate) Atletico Madrid (UEFA Europa League-Round of 16-Second Leg)
Courtesy of a 3-0 home win in the first leg, Diego Simeone was able to name a rotated side to play against Lokomotiv Moscow on Thursday night and chose to rest both Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann from the start.
The away side dominated all aspect of the match in a very comfortable win over the side who top the Russian Premier League by a margin of eight points.
A fine finish from the impressive Angel Correa gave Atleti the lead on the night after only 16 minutes.
The game’s overall narrative was momentarily interrupted in the 20th minute by a wonder-strike from Lokomotiv right back Maciej Rybus.
Atletico Madrid cut loose in the second-half and took the lead two minutes after the break though Saul Niguez following some slick interplay with Felipe Luis.
Fernando Torres scored twice in five minutes to make it 1-4 on the night after 70 minutes.
The crowning glory of Atletico’s victory was reserved until the 85th minute, when substitute Antoine Griezmann beat goalkeeper Anton Kochenkov with a delightful chip.
Javier Calleja will be without the midfield talents of Bruno Soriano (leg) who is still recovering from injury.
Goalkeeper Andres Fernandez (cruciate ligament) and defensive midfielder Javi Fuego (ankle) are unlikely to be fit enough to make the matchday squad.
Midfielder Leonardo Suarez (cruciate ligament) remains a long-term injury absentee.
Atletico Madrid Lineup
Diego Simeone will be unable to call upon the services of defender Filipe Luis (broken leg) who is out for the remainder of the season.
Back-up striker Kevin Gameiro (hamstring) will also miss out as he continues his injury recovery.
There are also doubts over the match fitness of defensive duo Stefan Savic (thigh) and Juanfran (muscle).
More positively, Diego Costa and Jan Oblak look set to return from their own injury lay-offs.
Key Battle: Carlos Bacca (Villarreal) vs Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid)
Carlos Bacca now has primary goal-scoring responsibility for Villarreal following the January departure of China-bound Cedric Bakambu. The 31-year-old is the club’s top scorer with nine goals, yet has only scored once in his last seven competitive fixtures.
The Milan-loanee has enjoyed the support of an improving Nicola Sansone whose own good form has somewhat relieved the pressure on the Colombian international.
Bacca is a fine finisher and particularly dominant in the air, yet he is not averse to shirking his defensive responsibilities. If Villarreal are to escape their current dour run then they need Bacca to lead from the front.
The arrival of Diego Costa in January has freed up Antoine Griezmann who is now showing his best form. The Frenchman looked tense for much of the first half of the season, attempting to play the role of both creative midfielder and centre forward, often ending up somewhere in between the two.
The 26-year-old is currently in electric form, having scored eleven goals and created four assists in only his last nine competitive games. His wonderful cameo in Moscow on Thursday night provided further evidence that Griezmann is at the peak of his powers.
He may not stay at Atletico Madrid this summer, but they will certainly enjoy his gifts for as long as he is wearing red and white.
Villarreal’s tough run-in
Villarreal will be desperate to secure at least a top six finish, yet will have to dramatically improve their form if they are to safely achieve their ambitions. The Yellow Submarine face all of the top five teams in La Liga before the end of the season, including difficult away trips to Sevilla and Barcelona.
Girona look the most likely side to overtake them, having won four of their last five games and lurking only one point behind in seventh-place. The talented squad of Real Betis are also beginning to find some consistency and are themselves only four points adrift of Villarreal.
There is still time for Villarreal to save their season and secure qualification for European competition next season. They will, however, have to produce a number of strong performances in their final ten games.
Atleti’s free-scoring forwards
Much has been made of Atletico’s miserly defence under Diego Simeone. No side in La Liga have conceded fewer goals than Los Rojiblancos who have only allowed their opponents to score past them 12 times in 28 games.
More recently, however, it has been Atletico’s attacking displays that have caught the eye. Diego Costa has given them fresh impetus going forward and they are beginning to carve teams apart with some ease.
Los Rojiblancos have scored 20 goals in their last six competitive fixtures, an average of over three goals a game. Antionne Griezmann and Diego Costa have quickly formed an impressive striking partnership and they are well supported by the likes of Saul Niguez in midfield.
Simeone’s side are now far more than a solid defensive unit and are becoming a joy to watch.
Prediction: Villarreal 1-2 Atletico Madrid
The home side will take some confidence from last week’s victory, but they remain a long way off their most fluid form. Carlos Bacca and Nicola Sansone will have to be at their absolute best if they are to break down this resolute Atleti defence. The visitors are looking an increasingly dangerous attacking prospect and Sunday’s encounter could prove difficult for the hosts to negotiate.
Will Atletico Madrid keep within touching distance of Barcelona?
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