Villarreal, inspired by winger Samuel Chukwueze, face champions Real Madrid on Saturday in La Liga looking to continue their push for Champions League qualification.
Quique Setien’s Yellow Submarine have good reason to believe they can take three points from the Santiago Bernabeu, despite Madrid hitting 10 goals in their last two games.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side have the game sandwiched between the 4-0 Clasico romp over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday, and a European showdown against Chelsea next week.
With Barcelona strolling to the title, 12 points ahead of Madrid, Los Blancos may rotate players against Villarreal and take their eye off the ball.
The biggest factor, though, is Chukwueze’s sensational form, with the forward dazzling in recent weeks to help Villarreal, sixth, cut the gap on the teams ahead of them.
They beat Real Sociedad 2-0 last weekend, with Chukwueze winning a penalty to help open the scoring, converted by Dani Parejo.
Villarreal also drew with Real Betis, fifth, in March, and have won four of their last five league games.
The 23-year-old Nigerian winger has scored three goals and provided three assists across those matches, finding consistency at long last — he scored just one goal in 20 league games prior.
Chukwueze did not get regular starts under Unai Emery but he has developed into an essential weapon for Setien, who took over at the end of October.
With 11 goals and 11 assists this season across all competitions for his club, Chukwueze is enjoying his best campaign at the club on both fronts.
“He was already a great player before I arrived,” said Setien after the win over La Real, which reduced the gap on the Basque side to just four points with 11 games remaining.
“It’s true that sometimes a certain context or a run in the side will help, but I already saw him do extraordinary things before I arrived.
“He has maintained a great level of performance and I hope he keeps it up because, on days like today, he’s decisive.”
Setien’s more attacking game has created the conditions for Chukwueze to become his team’s main threat, with his swift and mazy dribbling also highlighting him as one of the division’s most entertaining players.
With Madrid defender Ferland Mendy out injured, Ancelotti has been using Nacho or midfielder Eduardo Camavinga out of position in the left-back spot, whom Chukwueze will relish taking on.
Camavinga impressed against the ineffective Barca winger Raphinha on Wednesday, but Chukwueze is a trickier proposition.
Injury problems and inconsistency have not helped his cause over the past couple of seasons but the winger can showcase his recent rise on the big stage in the capital on Saturday.
Setien and Villarreal already stung Madrid in January with a 2-1 win at the Estadio de la Ceramica and will back themselves to do it again.
Player to watch: Youssef En-Nesyri
The Sevilla striker, a Morocco international who shone at the World Cup last year in Qatar, has found his best form for his club in 2023. As Jose Luis Mendilibar’s side bid for survival, they will depend on En-Nesyri’s goals. The 25-year-old forward failed to score in his first 14 league games but has now netted six in his last nine.
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