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Just three days after winning the derby, Barça have another league fixture, this time a trip of about 150 miles down the Mediterranean coast to Villarreal.
Villarreal are the classic example how a team from a small town can mix it with the big boys. The club spent most of its existence in the regional leagues, but made it into the second division in the 1990s and in 1998 won promotion to the top flight for the first time ever.
They weren’t expected to stay long, but two decades later they are still there. In 2008 they finished as high as second, they made it as far as the Champions League semi-finals in 2006, and are currently playing European football for the fifth consecutiuve season.
Not bad for a city of just 50,000 people!
Opened way back in 1923, El Madrigal was re-named El Estadio de la Cerámica in 2017 in honour of the local industry. A lot of rebuilding work has gone on since the club has been playing in the top flight, although the 24,890 capacity still makes it one of the smaller venues in La Liga.
HEAD TO HEAD
There was a period about a decade ago when Barça developed a nasty habit of slipping up against Villarreal. But the ‘bogey team’ label has been emphatically confined to the past and Barça are on an incredible run of 21 games without defeat to the ‘Yellow Submarine’ in all competitions.
But that doesn’t mean the trip to Villarreal is an easy one. Other than a 4-1 win in 2010, all the meetings at the Estadio de la Cerámica have been relatively tight affairs.
So was the game at the Camp Nou earlier this season. Gerard Piqué opened the scoring in the first half but the three points weren’t secured until Carles Aleñá found the net three minutes from the end.
After five consecutive top six finishes, this season sees Villarreal in the unfamiliar situation of dicing with relegation. A run of just one win in 17 games left them second from bottom. Wins against Sevilla, Levante and Rayo Vallecano have earned some much needed points, but they are far from safe.
That’s in stark contrast to their Europa League form. After topping a group containing Rapid Vienna, Rangers and Spartak Moscow, they have eliminated Sporting Lisbon and Zenit St Petersburg to earn an enticing quarter final against local rivals Valencia.
Villarreal’s top scorer this term is Cameroonian Karl Toko Ekambi with 15 in all competitions, while Espanyol youth product Gerard Moreno has netted ten and Colombian Carlos Bacca has nine.
The club’s delicate situation in La Liga is not helped by a number of injury issues in the squad, including long-term absences of Miguelón Llambrich, Manu Trigueros and Bruno Soriano.
A product of Real Madrid’s youth system as a player, Javier Calleja’s two main clubs were Villarreal and Malaga.
Following retirement he joined the Villarreal coaching staff and in 2017 became first team manager, but was dismissed just before Christmas in the wake of the team’s poor form. However, things didn’t improve under his replacement Luis García and barely a month after being sacked, Calleja was re-instated in his former position!
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