For once, I think I’d be ready to come into a match with Atletico Madrid supremely confident after our recent run of form, and yet at this precise moment in the season we are set to lose three players for the next several weeks as the African Cup of Nations kicks off. Boulaye Dia will be representing Senegal, Samu Chukwueze will be suiting up for Nigeria, Aissa Mandi will be defending for Algeria and Serge Aurier will be captaining the Ivory Coast.
I do not, in the slightest, begrudge players for suiting up for their countries, and of all continents I understand why Africa has their tournament during the winter (I was once in Egypt in late May and saw temperatures well over 100 °F - about 38 °C). That said, because Villarreal spent so much of the first half the season playing pitiful football, these departures now come at a juncture where continuing the good momentum is essential.
Dia and Chukwueze in particular will be huge losses. The first year striker has finally found his shooting boots and has returned three goals in the last two matches, pairing wonderfully with automatic brace Gerard Moreno. Samu Chukwueze is a natural (and really, the only) fill in for Danjuma who was not even in the 18 against Levante. Losing them seriously threatens the goalscoring run the club has been on.
And what a run it’s been. Since November 30, Villarreal has scored 34 goals in 8 matches in all competitions. Narrow that down to just the La Liga matches and you have 15 goals in five matches, with us winning our last four. The team has been playing faster and more direct and I hardly remember an Unai Emery side looking this good.
I feel relatively confident that we can cover for Aurier in his absence, but if we suffer an injury at CB, the absence of Aissa Mandi could be very significant.
Let’s hope for safety for our four internationals during the break and health returning to Danjuma very soon. If we can keep this momentum going, the ceiling for what we can accomplish this year is astonishingly high.