3rd-place Villarreal welcomes 18th-place Levante to El Madrigal on Saturday. (The match will be televised by GolTV in the US at 2 pm EST). Most observers tipped Levante for relegation this year, and the Granotas have not disappointed, so to speak. Their only away win was in September in Almería, and while they've been more competitive of late (losing at the Nou Camp 2-1 and defeating Getafe and Zaragoza at home), anything other than a Villarreal win in this fixture would be a major surprise. But while this matchup looks easy enough on paper, La Liga has thrown up a few surprises of late, so Villarreal should not be taking this fixture for granted.
The two teams met in Valencia in the third week of the season; two goals in the first half from Nilmar were enough for a 2-1 victory, though substitute Caicedo's late goal made things interesting toward the end. Villarreal lacked a lot of focus and intensity that day, though they were clearly the better side.
Focus should not be a problem on Saturday; the team is coming off a big road win at Espanyol and wants to maintain its strong record at home and continue piling up the points. What may be problems are injuries and squad depth. Nilmar was named to the squad last week for the first time since his knee surgery, but didn't play; while he probably will start this week, I wouldn't expect him to go 90 minutes. Marco Ruben is out and Santi Cazorla, though still expected to start, has a nagging hip injury and missed some training this week. Frankly, an ideal result would be for Villarreal to score enough early so that both Santi and Nilmar could be withdrawn around the 60-65 minute mark. Coach Garrido has called up Nicki Bille Nielsen from the B team for this match; I expect he may get some minutes if all goes well.
Here's the team:
Goalkeepers: Diego López, Oliva.
Defenders: Mario, Gonzalo, Marchena, Musacchio, Catalá, Cicinho, Capdevila.
Midfielders: Borja Valero, Bruno, Matilla, Cazorla, Cani, Cristóbal.
Strikers: Nilmar, Rossi, Nicki Bille.
Levante is missing some players as well; most importantly, Caicedo, who has scored 8 of their 22 goals this season, received his fifth yellow card last week and misses this game. Xisco Nadal successfully appealed his red card against Getafe, so he will play. And so will longtime Villarreal defensive stalwart Javi Venta, who should receive a nice welcome from the Madrigal faithful. Jefferson Montero (who will not play in the game) was not the only player Levante took on loan in January; in Caicedo's absence, we could see young Brazilian Wellington make his first start for the Granotas. Signed by Arsenal and then loaned to Levante when he couldn't obtain a work permit from the FA, he's supposed to be quite a talent.
These two clubs have met sporadically at El Madrigal over the years; eight times in the Tercera División, three times in Segunda B, three times in Segunda A, and now for the fourth time in the Primera. Levante's last win here was in 1991 (Segunda B) by three goals to one, and its last draw was in 2006, 1-1. The last meeting in Vila-real was in the 2007-08 season, and the Submarine triumphed 3-0. A similar scoreline this time would suit me just fine. Endavant Villarreal!!