Zinedine Zidane has a full squad available for Real Madrid’s trip to the Estadio de la Ceramica to play Villarreal on Saturday. The game is of little consequence to Madrid as they prepare to defend their Champions League title next weekend in Kiev and one that the Frenchman will be keen to see his players come through unscathed.
Fortunately for Zidane’s designs, Villarreal have little but pride to play for on the final weekend of the Liga season. Javi Calleja’s “Yellow Submarine” currently occupy fifth place and although they could still finish behind Betis, who travel to Leganes, both clubs have already qualified for the Europa League group stage next season and cannot be caught by Sevilla, who are five points behind in seventh.
That does not mean that Villarreal will take it easy on Madrid; there is no national non-aggression pact ahead of European finals, as Atletico can attest. Last weekend, Diego Simeone’s side crossed town to take on Getafe, who at that stage still harboured their own European aspirations, and were treated to a typically robust welcome from the league leaders in terms of fouls committed (661).
Zidane can think himself lucky not to be facing a side noted for embracing the game’s more physical aspects but Villarreal are no angels, ranking fifth in putting the boot in this season (585 fouls) and second behind Getafe in overall cards received (115).
That is a concern for the Real boss ahead of his side’s date with Liverpool and particularly in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo: the Portuguese has not played since spraining his ankle in the Camp Nou two weeks ago. Ronaldo has scored in five of his six career La Liga games on Villarreal’s home turf and will be given a run-out in the Ceramica to attempt to continue that record. That being said, he will probably not be tasked with completing the full 90 minutes with Liverpool just a week away.
Dani Carvajal is also available again after recovering from a thigh problem sustained in the opening leg of the semi-final against Bayern Munich and will be treated with similar caution to Ronaldo, playing a sufficient amount of time to pick up some rhythm ahead of Kiev but not long enough to run the risk of aggravating the problem afresh.
Zidane is likely to play as close to the side he plans to field in the Champions League final as possible, with the main point of interest lying in where Isco and Gareth Bale currently rank in their manager’s mind. Both stated their case in the 6-0 victory over Celta Vigo, during which Bale bagged a brace and Isco was simply magisterial. Assuming that Zidane will play his preferred midfield three and both Ronaldo and Karim Benzema against Liverpool, the Wales and Spain internationals will be in a straight shoot-out for the remaining place in the starting XI, a contest Isco won last season in Cardiff, though Bale had only recently returned from injury on that occasion.
Whatever the result in Villarreal, Zidane will be more interested in the performance and a little fine-tuning. Calleja’s side are far from a mirror-image of Liverpool, as they are experts in dealing with crosses and league leaders in successful clearances (1,004) while conceding the same number of times at home this season as Real Madrid (20).
Calleja favours a possession-based approach but Villarreal pack plenty of punch on the break and are effective in front of goal, which should provide Real’s back four with a decent workout at least. Carlos Bacca bagged a first-half hat trick at home against Celta three weeks ago and Pablo Fornals is La Liga’s joint-top assist provider with 12, level with Leo Messi. The Colombia international, though, has four cautions and is not expected to feature in order to avoid a suspension for the opening game of next season.
Zidane said after his own side’s dismantling of Celta that he welcomed the dilemma posed by having a full squad to choose from for the Champions League final and the same will be true on the east coast on Saturday. Bale has hit a rich vein of form at the perfect moment for the Real boss while Isco was back to his mesmerizing best against Celta, picking up where he left off in Malaga before a shoulder injury sidelined him for three weeks. Keylor Navas has been performing expertly between the sticks and Zidane’s substitutions of late have generally been well-timed and impactful, which has not always been the case during his Bernabeu tenure.
“Whatever side Madrid put out, they’re a winning team,” noted Calleja ahead of the game. “They may make changes and they’ll have players looking to play their way into the Champions League final.”
That is precisely the situation Zidane would have wanted to be a week before Kiev. The Frenchman will be chiefly interested in maintaining that status quo on Saturday with more than half an eye on Liverpool.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.