It’s week two of La Liga and the big guns have very different test as Barca and Real hit the road hoping to match reigning champions Atletico win over Eibar at the Calderón.
Once Villarreal found out how to beat Barcelona for the first time, in April 2003, it began a 14 match run during which Barça only won four times, there were four draws while, both home and away, Villarreal won six.
The golden years of Pep Guardiola saw the contest veer firmly back in favour of the Camp Nou side but the gap has been narrowing over the last three results – two single-goal victories for Barça and a 0-0 draw.
In fact for the good of La Liga and Spanish football in general it’s a terrific time for this test to come around for Luis ‘Lucho’ Enrique’s (below) re-designed Barcelona side.
Their work ethic, during pre-season and in training, is vastly different from the laissez faire days of Tata Martino, the investment in the squad may not have bought premium beef but it’s better than the spam which was often served up last season.
However it’s nice and early for this project to be given a test like the visit to the Madrigal. Uncomfortable even.
Villarreal work with great intensity whether or not they have the ball, they break at speed, they are on the back of two thrilling Europa League results and, importantly, Cani is once again fit and available to add his nous and attacking aggression to the midfield. (He scored against both Barça and Madrid last season but how they missed him in the middle of the campaign when he was out for 12 straight games.)
At the back Villarreal fought Spurs off for Mateo Musacchio, they’ve signed the previously on-loan Sergio Asenjo (who’s good enough to compete for a place in the Spain squad) and it’s just the type of tight pitch and fervent ‘little town’ support to make this the equivalent of a well balanced FA Cup third-round tie.
Above all, Villarreal play football. They are smart, quick, protective of the ball and will attack Barcelona. Six months from now, perhaps even six weeks from now, with all the new signings bedded in, Luis Suárez (above) available, Luis Enrique in greater command of what’s at his disposal you’d feel confident of backing Barcelona.
Right now it’s one of those ‘you never know’ games about which the rest of Spain is crossing it’s fingers. And singing the verse to Yellow Submarine.
Once Real Madrid would confront a visit to the Basque Country, in fact anywhere north of Catalunya, with a shudder of horror.
Defeat would be on the cards and what would be absolutely certain would be a night of Basque hostility, intensity, a test of mental and physical muscles – no quarter given.
Right now, ahead of their trip to the Anoeta this weekend, I’d guess that Carlo Ancelotti (above) Paul Clement and Fernando Hierro are wearing happy little grins.
Rogered in Russia
While Madrid were in Geneva dominating the Uefa gala, basking in the golden glow of adoration and their 10th Champions Cup their opponents on Sunday, Real Sociedad, were being rogered in Russia.
Five hour trip there, big new summer-signing Alfred Finnbogason missing injured, three-goal defeat, out of Europe, newly signed keeper Geronimo Rulli injured and likely out for two months, five-agonising-hour journey home. Welcome to the big(ish) time.
So La Real v Real shapes up as the perfect opportunity for Madrid to add to their ‘racha’ (run) of good results against the blue-and-whites.
It’s a decade since La Real beat Real and in their last six Liga meettings the capital club have pumped 26 goals past their rivals.
Right now the crowd are out of love with La Real, Jagoba Arrasate’s job is under threat, goals are terrifically hard to come by and the Txuri-urdin have lost a key man when they sold Chile’s World Cup keeper, Claudio Bravo to Barcelona.
Despite Madrid looking a bit slow, lacking in crisp, decisive passing and finishing last weekend there are positives. Ronaldo is nearer to fitness, the fact that Benzema broke his scoring drought against Cordoba and the fact that La Real have had a brutal week directs us towards an away win.
If it’s single-handed resistance you are looking for then think Xabi Prieto: he’s scored five times against Madrid in two recent matches – a 4-3 defeat and a 3-3 draw. And if you go ALL the way back to La Real’s last victory over Los Blancos, in May 2004, who scored two of the goals in the 4-1 away win?
Señor Prieto, that’s right.
You can follow Graham Hunter on Twitter @BumperGraham