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Preview: Villarreal-Almeria

After a flirtation with the Copa del Rey, Villarreal return to league business, taking on Almeria to begin the second half of their La Liga campaign.

Denis Doyle

Well, it was nice while it lasted, but a subpar performance and dodgy officiating, not to mention a penalty miss, have put an end to our Copa del Rey dreams. So, back to the league.

Villarreal host Almeria Sunday in El Madrigal and to be blunt, we should win this one. In fact, it's the first of three matches against teams we defeated in the first round, and the first of three against teams fighting against relegation.

Going into the season Villarreal said their first priority was 'permanence in the league', and with 34 points from 19 matches, they should easily achieve that. The next target would be a spot in Europe next season, and that's within reach but a tougher fight--two points out of fourth and a CL qualifying round spot, four points ahead of Sevilla in seventh.

If you look at the current table, Villarreal went 1-3-2 against teams in the top seven (their rivals for Europe), 9-2-2 against everyone else. That latter stat is great, and we need to keep that up. So, Almeria.....

Our opponents: Almeria were a lot of people's trendy pick to go straight back down to the Segunda, especially after they offloaded their striker Charles in the summer. They've had moments of success--three straight wins in late October/early November were encouraging, and they had two wins either side of Christmas--but mostly, it's been a tough slog.

In the beginning of the season (including against us) they were scoring--five matches in a row with two goals or more--but since then, only two in the next 14 (at the Mestalla against Djukic's Valencia, and against Granada at home in late December). And with striker Rodri out with an ankle injury it's not clear where goals are going to come from. They have to be working the phones in search of loan deals, because the current squad is going to be struggling to stay up, to be honest.

Alneria's strength is midfield; the creative Aleix Vidal and Liverpool loanee Suso, Marcos Tebar, Verza (did you realize he played for Villarreal in his youth? I didn't) and young Nigerian Ramon Aseez, not to mention veteran hardman Fernando Soriano. Defense is a problem, especially with injuries to Nélson and Chilean Hans Martínez, who arrived from Universidad Católica but hasn't played for Almeria yet.

Villarreal: Key question is whether Gio has recovered from his sickness that kept him out of yesterday's match. Cani is still out, and Farinós's injury has not responded to treatment. Pantic has a knock and Hernan Perez, though he started yesterday, seemed definitely subpar, perhaps still recovering from his knock the match before.

On the assumption Gio is OK, I expect we'll go with pretty much our first-choice XI:

Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Dorado, Jaume Costa; Bruno, Trigueros; Aquino, Moi; Gio, Uche.

If Gio can't go, expect the Uche-Perbet pairing again.

Prediction: 3-1 to Villarreal.