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New Year, New Villarreal?

Villarreal CF begins a frenetic January with a visit to Vallecas and second-from-bottom Rayo Vallecano. The Yellow Submarine desperately needs a win to stay in the European spots and within touching distance of fourth-place Athletic Bilbao. But without midfielders Rubén Cani and Bruno Soriano at full strength, the job is tougher.

Is Aquino slipping down the pecking order?
Is Aquino slipping down the pecking order?
Steve Bardens

Villarreal's last away match of the primera vuelta. European ambitions drifting off course. Rayo Vallecano in its bandbox of vocal supporters. Already in dire straits to avoid the drop. Should be a fierce edition of Monday Night Football...and did I mention Raúl Tamudo was offside?

Tactics. On paper, this augurs a great matchup for Villarreal. Rayo wants to play football, so expect an open encounter against Paco Jémez's men. Not as much of the fouling, counterattacking, and reliance on set pieces as from Elche, Málaga, and Sevilla, all of whom recently took points at El Madrigal. And while the franjirrojos possess some young talent, it has been cobbled together on loan from bigger Spanish clubs and abroad (including former Villarreal B vagabond Iago Falqué). No Ivan Rakitic to trouble a now-shaky Villarreal back four, but watch out for Colombian dynamo Johan Mojica.

Injuries. But matches are not won on paper. Key midfielders Rubén Cani and Bruno Soriano are injury doubts, with the ex-Zaragoza playmaker potentially a long-term casualty. Bad news with only Moi Gómez currently for cover at right midfielder. Edu Ramos started in the B team's win over Segunda B group leaders UE Llagostera on Saturday, but the match was more than 48 hours prior to the A team's visit to Vallecas, so no confirmation yet on Bruno's availability.

Squad. Marcelino García Toral should permute a starting XI from the following eighteen players, assuming Bruno overcomes his knock:

My expected Villarreal XI: Asenjo; Mario, Gabriel, Musacchio, J. Costa; Pina, Manu; Hernán, Moi; Gio, Uche.

My expected Villarreal bench: J. Carlos; Dorado, Jokic; Aquino, Bruno; Jony, Perbet.

Prediction. If Villarreal wants to vanquish any lingering relegation ghosts and make a serious challenge for Europe, three points are a must in Vallecas. And while I expect Jonathan Viera (on loan from Valencia) to cause problems near Asenjo, Villarreal has a lot more firepower. 1-3 to the visitors.

The match will begin at 4 pm Eastern Time on Monday (thank you as always, LFP) and air on BeIN Sports en Español. A por todas, submarino!