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Preview: Espanyol - Villarreal

Villarreal take on a "direct rival" Sunday when they play Espanyol at the Estadi Cornellà-El Prat. The Yellow club sits nicely in third place, two points ahead of Valencia, but Espanyol are only three points behind the Unibats, and have to consider themselves as real contenders for first place in Liga Justa. Espanyol have never competed in the Champions League, and having rounded the bend on the season you know they can taste the possibility.

Espanyol have further incentive as Villarreal come calling, as they will be looking to avenge a 4-0 embarrassment at the hands of Villarreal in the second round of La Liga. In that match in which no one yet had an inkling of what this Espanyol club would really show this season. Although Villarreal did not necessarily play all that well against Espanyol in that match, the club from Barcelona were absolutely horrible, and the ball fell nicely for Villarreal. Rossi bagged a brace, alongside goals for Borja Valero and Nilmar, as Villarreal answered the questions that came up after dropping the first match of the season to Real Sociedad.

The 4-0 loss to Villarreal was somewhat typical for Espanyol when it comes to defeats - they have gone big against the top 3 in La Liga, having also dropped matches 1-5 to Barcelona, and 3-0 at Real Madrid. Despite the large margins of defeat in a few matches, the club has otherwise been reasonably consistent, beating the clubs they should beat (the sole exception being a 3-0 loss away to Deportivo), and going 12-1-4 (w-d-l) the rest of the way.

Unfortunately for Espanyol's on-the-field prospects (but much better for their bank account prospects), the club have lost two regular starters in defense this week to Italian clubs. The club sold left-back Didac Vila to A.C. Milan, and more notably, Victor Ruiz to Villarreal's Europa League rivals Napoli. Vila had 12 starts (13 appearances) on the season to date in the Primera, and Ruiz had 15 starts. This will be Espanyol's first match since having sold the players, and we should expect a bit of a makeshift defense as Espanyol compensate for the losses. On a side note, Espanyol have to be thanking the realities of Liga Justa for having to sell half of its defense in the middle of a season in which they are fighting for the Champions League.

The primary concern for Villarreal will also be in defense, as the back four has been a sieve as of late. In the last six matches in all competitions, the Yellow Submarine has allowed an astonishing 15 goals, an average of 2.5 per match. The club might defend itself by pointing out that a rash of injuries has been the culprit. Marchena has been out for over a month. Angel tore ligaments in the match against Madrid and is gone for the season. Senna, who plays a big role in defense, has been out for well over a month, and his return is all but certain at this point. But the reality is, you have to play with who you have. To compensate, the club have been trying a number of combinations, including the addition of Mario or new signing Cicinho on the right, and putting either Catala or Musacchio in with Gonzalo.

The quick fixes in defense have not always been pretty, but the good news is that things are at least beginning to look a little better. Marchena came on for a few minutes towards the end of the win over Sociedad last weekend, and looks to be ready to go on Sunday. He could be the plug that stops the leak, as a lot of the problems come in central defense. As for right-back, Cicinho has had a little more time to adjust to the club, and Mario is becoming more experienced with every match. Either should be viable options going forward.

Villarreal have not yet released their squad for the match as of this writing, but we do know that Nilmar will be out for one more week. The club welcome Marchena back, though, and have to feel good about that. My expected starting lineup:

Diego Lopez
Mario - Gonzalo - Marchena - Capdevila
Cazorla - Valero - Bruno - Cani
Rossi - Ruben

We will have to be aggressive on the attack if we are going to even score in the match. If you throw out Espanyol's result against Barcelona as an aberration, the club have only allowed two other home goals all season, and have kept 6 clean sheets. The Cazorla-to-Rossi combination will have to be working full tilt to change that equation.

This will be an incredibly difficult match. Going into Espanyol and pulling points is not easy, despite the show that Barcelona put on there. Outside of the Barcelona match, the club is otherwise perfect in the 2010 Venue of the Year, and will be no doubt looking to stay that way. Villarreal have not been very strong on the road so far this year, and this will be a major test. The matches away to Barcelona and Real Madrid were perhaps dreams for the club, but this will be a match that the club has to feel that a win is vital, and possible. An additional three point cushion on Espanyol would be huge, of course, but with a victory the club would also keep the psychological edge of holding onto third place for another week as Valencia take on tame Racing Santander.