Real Madrid out to boost Spanish lead against Villarreal
MADRID (AP) — Free from European duty this week, a well-rested Real Madrid heads into this weekend’s Spanish league matches looking to maintain its lead.
The 10-time European champions, who hold a four-point lead over Barcelona in the league, host Villarreal on Sunday. Madrid beat Villarreal 4-2 and 3-0 the last two times they played at the Santiago Bernabeu, having lost 4-2 and 3-0 on its last two visits there.
Barcelona will try to stay within range when it visits Granada on Saturday, while Sevilla hosts third-place Atletico Madrid.
Here are some things to know about this weekend’s matches:
MODRIC OR ISCO
Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo both scored in a 2-0 win the last time Madrid faces Villarreal. Modric has recovered from a hip injury he sustained while on international duty in November and could be set to return to the squad.
During his absence, however, Francisco “Isco” Alarcon has blossomed in the role of creative playmaker.
The 22-year-old Isco received a standing ovation at Elche last weekend — something very rare in the Spanish league — after helping Madrid to a 2-0 victory.
“He’s playing really well — game in, game out — bringing a lot of quality and intensity,” said Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, who must now choose whether to bench the on-form Spaniard in favor of the Croatia midfielder.
Even though Lionel Messi had a penalty saved by Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart on Tuesday and he then missed a header into an open goal, Granada will need to be wary of the Argentina forward.
When the clubs last met, Messi scored twice and Neymar hit a hat trick in a 6-0 rout. The Andalucian club has only earned 19 points from 24 matches and is 19th place, just above regional rival Cordoba.
NEED TO BEAT ATLETICO
Sevilla, the only team in the league with an unbeaten home record this season, will be aiming to climb up from fifth place when it hosts Atletico.
Fernando Torres is likely to be kept as a substitute, given the successful attacking partnership of Antoine Griezmann and Mario Mandzukic. And Griezmann is hungry for goals.
“When I joined, I said I wanted to improve my statistics, and that’s what I’m intent on doing,” the 23-year-old France midfielder said.
In the league, Griezmann has scored 10 goals for Atletico this season with his favored left foot and headed in another four. Last weekend, he scored twice against Almeria from three attempts.
BUCK THE TREND
Valencia has lost all of its matches against Real Sociedad since May 2011, and the team will be looking to change that on Sunday.
Valencia is fourth in the standings so far and has set itself the objective of finishing the season in the Champions League places.