Real Madrid begin the first of five matches that could bring a most unlikely La Liga title triumph with the visit of fourth-placed Villarreal to the Bernabeu on Wednesday. At the start of April, Zinedine Zidane’s side found themselves 10 points behind runaway leaders Barcelona at the top of La Liga. But three straight league defeats by the defending champions, a run started in the Clásico, has allowed Real Madrid to close the gap to just a solitary point after recording seven successive wins.
With Atlético Madrid now also level on points with Barcelona, it promises to be a tense three-way battle for the title in the coming weeks.
It was after a 1-0 defeat to Atlético at the end of February that even Zidane wrote off his team’s chances of landing the title. However, he has now insisted that he always retained belief that a remarkable turnaround was possible.
“I don't know when the perception changed from La Liga being lost to having a chance of winning it,” he said in his press conference ahead of Wednesday’s matchup. “We lost against Atlético, a direct opponent, but what I learnt as a player is that when you lose everyone thinks that things are not going well. Although at the time I said it was lost, I knew that there was a chance of winning it. Even if you are first, you don't know if you are going to win the league”.
“We're going to fight for La Liga until the end. We're playing for a lot in every game and we need the support of the fans, they are an extra help as always, and now more so because they know that we need their support. I ask that the fans are always with us and that they are going be and they'll be behind their team.”
Zidane has ruled Gareth Bale and Dani Carvajal for the clash with Villarreal, with both hampered by minor injuries. And Real Madrid certainly can’t afford to take a victory for granted on Wednesday.
Villarreal have enjoyed a fine season, currently occupying a Champions League place and set for a Europa League semifinal against Liverpool. Yet the ending of a run of four straight victories with defeat at Rayo Vallecano on Sunday also means that Marcelino’s side remain in need of points to seal a Champions League berth. They currently sit six points ahead of fifth-place Athletic Bilbao.
On the back of a defeat last time out, Villarreal are also battling numerous injury worries. Roberto Soldado, and possibly Victor Ruiz, have joined a list of absentees that already included Mateo Musacchio, Samu Castillejo, Jaume Costa and Tomas Pina. And Marcelino fully expects a stiff challenge heading to the Bernabeu.
“They are in a good moment, they're scoring with ease, especially at the Bernabeu,” he said, according to Spanish sports daily AS. “We'll be going there with all of the excitement in the world to make things difficult for them. We hope they don't have a good day but at the Bernabeu they've looked very solid, and particularly so in this final stretch of the campaign.”
Prediction: With the exception of the loss to Atlético, Real Madrid have brushed aside all comers at the Bernabeu since Zidane took the reins in January. And with Villarreal having won just one of their last seven away matches in La Liga and missing some important players, Real Madrid should keep their winning run going.
Predicted score: Real Madrid 3-1 Villarreal
Kickoff time: 4 p.m. EDT
TV channel: beIN Sports en Español, second half on beIN Sports