Saturday, February 20, 2010

Friends Of Don Quixote: Pressure Mounting On Madrid

After a disappointing defeat in the Champions League, Real Madrid resumes its chase of Barcelona on Sunday against Villarreal.

There has been much debate in Madrid about what would constitute a success or failure this season after shelling out more than 250 million euros in the transfer market last summer. And while it might be unfair to demand trophies from any team that competes against Barcelona on every single front, losing to Lyon in the first knockout round of the Champions League would be considered an unmitigated disaster.

But it is a very real possibility following a 1-0 defeat in France on Tuesday that has Manuel Pellegrini in perhaps even worse shape than after the Alcorcon debacle. With Real showing no signs of recapturing its past European glory, the better bet for a trophy this season may indeed be the league, especially given Barcelona’s recent injury woes.

The Merengues enter the weekend just two points behind, thanks to Barcelona’s defeat last Sunday at the hands of city neighbors Atletico Madrid. But Pellegrini’s side faces a tricky fixture against Villarreal in front of what promises to be a very grumpy crowd at the Bernabeu. Madrid won the first meeting back in September 2-0 with Kaka scoring from the penalty spot, and the Brazilian will be under heavy scrutiny on Sunday.

Kaka has been given a longer leash than most superstars at Madrid, and it is easy to understand why. He remains the consummate professional, works hard in every game, and is able to make a positive contribution even when he doesn’t play particularly well. And there have been some encouraging displays, most notably in the defeat to Barcelona at the Camp Nou, probably his best performance in a Madrid uniform.

But two thirds into his first season in Spain, Kaka has yet to resemble the brilliant player who captured the Ballon d’Or with AC Milan, and patience is wearing thin. Some even feel it is no longer an issue of adaptation, rather he just arrived a couple of years too late. Final judgment will be withheld until the end of the campaign, however, and the Brazilian still has plenty of time to win over supporters.

Whether Madrid can put forth a convincing display on Sunday will depend a great deal on which Villarreal side shows up. So far the managerial switch from Ernesto Valverde to Juan Carlos Garrido appears to be paying off, as the team played well against both Mallorca and Athletic Bilbao. But Villarreal also enjoyed a fantastic run under Valverde, culminating in a 1-1 draw away to Barcelona, only to go off the boil again.

Garrido will be minus defender Diego Godin, sent off in the 2-1 win over Bilbao, but he can count on Brazilian striker Nilmar, who found the back of the net last week and is playing his best soccer of the season at the moment. Also in good form is playmaker David Fuster, and the pair will test a Madrid back line that hasn’t allowed a goal at home since early December, provided Fuster is declared fit.

Villarreal still maintains slim hopes of claiming a Champions League spot, but the two sides most likely to compete for fourth place collide on Saturday when Sevilla travels to Mallorca. Gregorio Manzano’s team has collected full points at home this season, but was extremely fortunate to knock off the Yellow Submarine two weeks ago and is showing signs of fading, while Sevilla has a knack for stepping up in big games.

Elsewhere, Barcelona hopes to bounce back from its first defeat of the campaign at home against Racing. Pep Guardiola will be without several key players, including Xavi, but Miguel Angel Portugal’s side is unlikely to put up much of a fight. Valencia hosts Getafe on Monday, while struggling Deportivo heads to Xerez badly in need of a win.

First Quest: Real Madrid vs. Villarreal
Sunday, 3:00 p.m. EST, ESPN Deportes

Manuel Pellegrini held a meeting with his players on Thursday to address any lingering issues stemming from the Lyon defeat. Gonzalo Higuain looked particularly annoyed at being replaced in the second half, but the Argentine should feature in the first XI once again alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka. Pellegrini will likely be without midfielder Jose Guti, whose importance to the team was underlined this past Tuesday.

Ezequiel Garay returned in the win over Xerez, but it remains to be seen if the imposing defender will reclaim his starting spot, as the back line has played well with Sergio Ramos in the middle and Alvaro Arbeloa on the right. Madrid’s defense could have its hands full on Sunday against a dangerous Villarreal attack.

Nilmar has been the key man of late, but several different players chip in goals as well. Joan Capdevila found the back of the net last week against Athletic Bilbao, and Marcos Senna drilled home a free kick in the UEFA Cup match against Wolfsburg on Thursday. Villarreal faces problems at the back with Diego Godin suspended and Gonzalo Rodriguez out of action with a thigh injury.

Second Quest: Mallorca vs. Sevilla
Saturday, 4:00 p.m. EST, ESPN Deportes

The Ono Estadi remains an impenetrable fortress in the league, but just barely. Villarreal outplayed Gregorio Manzano’s side two weeks ago and very nearly became the first team to register points in Mallorca, falling 1-0 thanks to a late header by captain Nunes. Sevilla comes to town on Saturday for a clash between two sides battling for the fourth and final Champions League spot.

Mallorca needs to be perfect at home because the team seems incapable of achieving anything away from the Ono Estadi. Los Barralets lost to lowly Tenerife on Monday, two weeks after coming up short against last-placed Xerez. Mallorca has struggled offensively of late with striker Aritz Aduriz mired in a major slump.

Sevilla isn't playing its best soccer, either, but Manolo Jimenez’s side did beat Osasuna 1-0 at home last week thanks to a brilliant first-half header by Luis Fabiano. The Brazilian is a major doubt for Saturday’s game with an ankle problem, while fellow striker Frederic Kanoute could miss out as well due to a muscle injury. The good news for Jimenez is that defender Ivica Dragutinovic is likely to feature.

Ladies-in-waiting: Barcelona vs. Racing Santander
Saturday, 2:00 p.m. EST, Gol TV

Lionel Messi may well be the best player on the planet, but most close observers of Barcelona believe Xavi is actually the most important player on the team. And the 30-year-old will be sidelined for up to two weeks with a thigh problem that probably explains his atrocious outing last weekend against Atletico Madrid.

Fortunately for Pep Guardiola, also without Seydou Keita, Daniel Alves and Eric Abidal, Racing is struggling to overcome the disappointment from its Copa Del Rey elimination at the hands of Atletico. Miguel Angel Portugal’s side was beaten 3-0 at home by Malaga last week, and even youngster Sergio Canales has gone off the boil a bit. Barcelona won the first meeting this season 4-1, with Messi scoring two fantastic goals.

Ladies-in-waiting: Valencia vs. Getafe
Monday, 3:00 p.m. EST, ESPN Deportes

Earlier this season, Valencia had a much easier time picking up victories away than at home, but Unai Emery’s side has won all three matches at the Mestalla after the winter break. Los Che are coming off a frustrating 1-1 draw away to Sporting Gijon in which they had the better of the play but paid the price for some lousy finishing.

Sporting goalkeeper Juan Pablo also contributed greatly to the result, coming up with a number of big saves, but this week Valencia faces a goalkeeper looking to make amends for a terrible performance. Getafe’s Jordi Codina gifted Almeria a goal in the dying moments of the 2-2 draw last Sunday, costing his team two important points. Los Azulones must make do without suspended striker Roberto Soldado.


Post a Comment

Cheap Web Hosting | Top Web Hosts | Great HTML Templates from