Real Madrid will be aiming to kick off 2019 with a bang when they travel to Estadio de la Ceramica to take on Villarreal on Thursday night.

La Liga action resumes on Thursday after the short winter break, with the final game of Matchday 17 being played belatedly. Villarreal will play hosts to Real Madrid at the Ceramica, looking to get out of their rut and continue their unbeaten start under new boss Luis Garcia.

Fifth last season, Villarreal have struggled to perform consistently thus far in 2018-19. With just three wins in the first 15 games in La Liga, Javi Calleja was given the boot, with the Yellow Submarine languishing in the relegation zone. Luis Garcia has since taken charge, overseeing a win in the Europa League in addition to a 2-2 stalemate at Huesca in his side’s last game of 2018.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, have been steadily improving under Santiago Solari, winning seven of the last eight games they played in 2018. This run also included two wins in the FIFA Club World Cup, with their final game of 2018 being the 4-1 success against Al Ain to lift the FIFA Club World Cup for a record fourth time.

The corresponding fixture last season had ended in a 2-2 draw, with Villarreal coming from two goals down to hold Real Madrid to the stalemate. Ahead of the latest meeting between the two sides, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the La Liga encounter.

Team News & Tactics

Villarreal

Luis Garcia has the big job of galvanizing the underperforming Villarreal side. (Photo by Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images)

Luis Garcia has the big job of galvanizing the underperforming Villarreal side. (Photo by Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images)

Luis Garcia does not have many pressing concerns hampering his preparations ahead of the visit of Real Madrid. On Thursday, the Villarreal boss could be without as many as six first-team players, although only two of them have been regulars this season.

The likes of Mariano Barbosa (back), Manuel Iturra (muscle injury) and Karl Toko Ekambi (leg) are on the treatment table, while Miguelon (shoulder) has returned to training. The big news though, is that club captain Bruno is nearing his return to action, as he continues his recovery from knee injury.

The veteran midfielder has been on the sidelines for over 18 months now. With Rodri, who replaced him with aplomb last season, now a part of Atletico Madrid, Villarreal have been bereft of a top class defensive midfielder, with Santiago Caseres not being nearly as good enough.

The same proved to be the undoing of Javi Calleja, who built his squad’s success last season on the back of the stability that Rodri provided in the middle of the park. Bruno, though, is still some way of regaining full match fitness, meaning Manu Trigueros will be entrusted with the responsibility of being the Anchor Man in front of the backline.

Giving him company in the middle of the park, should be former Arsenal man Santi Cazorla, who will be Villarreal’s playmaker. In-demand midfielder Pablo Fornals will also provide the creative touch, albeit from a more advanced position on the field, while teenage prodigy Samuel Chukwueze will be the X-Factor for the hosts.

Upfront, Gerard Moreno has been a certain starter for Villarreal all through the season, although it is high time he stepped up after a rather underwhelming campaign so far. In the absence of Toko Ekambi, Carlos Bacca should line up alongside Moreno in attack. At the back, the suspended Mario Gaspar will be the major absentee, and should be replaced by Miguel Layun.

Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Asenjo; Layun, Funes Mori, Alvaro, Costa; Chukwueze, Cazorla, Trigueros, Fornals; Moreno, Bacca

Villarrea

Real Madrid

Santiago Solari has a few fresh injuries following the FIFA Club World Cup campaign, with two regulars – Marcos Llorente (groin) and Marco Asensio (thigh) – set to be on the sidelines for much of January.

In addition to the aforementioned duo, Nacho (knee) and Mariano Diaz (back) remain on the treatment table, with the latter’s absence leading to a call-up for Real Madrid Castilla striker Cristo. Meanwhile, in Llorente’s absence, Casemiro should make his return to the starting lineup after a couple of months.

The return of the Brazilian should see the formidable midfield trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos reunite. Modric has been improving markedly in recent games, while Kroos has remained consistent for the most part this season, which leaves Real Madrid in good stead ahead of the trip to Villarreal.

Up ahead in attack, the absence of Asensio makes Solari’s job easier, with Lucas Vazquez set to keep his place. Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, meanwhile, are certain starters in attack, with the duo having the onus on them to continue performing at the levels they displayed at the FIFA Club World Cup.

At the back, Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo pick themselves, while Thibaut Courtois is the resounding first-choice goalkeeper ahead of Keylor Navas.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Courtois; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Lucas Vazquez, Benzema, Bale

Real Madrid

Key Stats

  • No team has won more games (21) and scored more goals (75) against Villarreal in La Liga history than Real Madrid (level with Barcelona, also 21 and 75).
  • Real Madrid have won their last three La Liga games without conceding. The last time they won four consecutive games without conceding in the competition was in April 2014, with Carlo Ancelotti in charge.
  • Villarreal have only picked up 15 points in 16 games in La Liga this season (W3 D6 L7), their joint-worst start at this stage in the top-flight alongside the 2011-12 season, when they were relegated.
  • Villarreal have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 10 La Liga games (W1 D4 L5), their worst such run in a single top-flight season since January 2009 (11).
  • Villarreal manager Luis Garcia has won only one of his eight games in La Liga against Real Madrid (D1 L6), a 2-1 success in August 2012 as the Getafe boss.

Player to Watch

Samuel Chukwueze

The new kid on the block. (Photo by Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images)

The new kid on the block. (Photo by Jose Jordan/AFP/Getty Images)

In a season of despair and inconsistency, the emergence of Samuel Chukwueze has been a rare positive for Villarreal. The 19-year-old, who joined Villarreal from Nigeria’s fabled Diamond Academy last year, has made giant strides in the under-19 and reserve sides before finally being given his big break a couple of months ago.

The teenager has well and truly made good use of his opportunity, scoring four times for El Submarino Amarillo already. With Marcelo always being ripe for the taking at the back, Chukwueze could well have a field day on Thursday, which would likely keep Villarreal in the hunt for long periods of the game.

Prediction

Villarreal 1-2 Real Madrid

Thursday’s tie at the Ceramica is quite an intriguing one. While Real Madrid have failed to deliver on their travels, winning just thrice so far, Villarreal have managed to triumph on just one occasion at home, one of the poorest records in La Liga this season.

But, Los Blancos have started picking up pace lately, with the upturn in Luka Modric’s form providing plenty of promise ahead of his side’s first game of 2019. For the home side, Samuel Chukwueze will be the one to watch out for, although they are unlikely to be good enough to get all three points.

A closely contested affair awaits on Thursday night, with Real Madrid having more than enough quality to prevail in the end. The Hard Tackle predicts a 2-1 win for Santiago Solari & co. in a result that will see them close the gap to Barcelona to an approachable 5 points.