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Villarreal enjoying life as underdogs atop the La Liga table
The critics say that Barcelona and Real Madrid’s duopoly in La Liga takes the excitement out of the league title race. At least in terms of their dominance, history is certainly on their side, the two rivals having shared nine straight league titles between 2002 and 2013.
Until, that is, Atletico Madrid upset the odds in May 2014 and lifted the title, arguably helping to prove the doubters wrong.
Those doubters will again be scratching their heads as Villarreal currently sit above all three clubs in the table, granted after only two months. Coincidentally, it was their 1-0 victory over none other than Atletico that put the Yellow Submarine top of the table.
Villarreal currently sit one point above reigning treble winners Barcelona, who suffered the major blow of Lionel Messi’s knee injury, sidelining him for the best part of two months. Already, it has become a race for Messi to be fit for El Clasico on November 22nd.
Luis Suarez managed to fill the Messi sized hole for Luis Enrique’s side over the weekend, as his brace gave them a 2-1 victory over Las Palmas, the same margin as Suarez helped ensure in the club’s come-from-behind victory of Bayer Leverkeusen in tonight’s Champions League match. The injury to Messi, and today to Iniesta possibly as well, mean opportunities for youngsters such as Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez, will also have the chance to step up into the first team. Barca have been unlucky with injuries recently, given midfielder Rafinha suffered a long-term knee injury earlier, in the the club’s 1-1 away draw with Roma in the Champions League.
On paper, this would mean advantage Real in the title race, but their star man Cristiano Ronaldo has also inconsistent this season. An amazing five goal display against Espanyol and subsequent hat-trick against Shakhtar Donetsk certainly kept up his scoring statistics, but he has failed to score in his last three games, including Real’s disappointing 0-0 draw with Malaga at the Bernabeu. This also helped give Villarreal the opportunity to go top unchallenged this weekend.
Real have been missing £86 million Welshman Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos to injury over the past few weeks but Rafael Benitez will know he has limited time to fix things in Real’s hot seat.
Villarreal may not have a squad full of Galacticos, yet they defeated Atletico courtesy of a goal from Leo Baptistao against his parent club. In England, loanees can’t play against their parent club, but in Spain this rule does not apply.
Villarreal are also in the Europa League this season, having finished sixth in the league last season and signed Tottenham flop Roberto Soldado over the summer for a reported £10million. The 30-year-old has looked more comfortable playing back in his homeland, bagging a brace of assists and scoring one himself in a 3-1 win over Espanyol in August. The former Valencia man has scored two goals in three games for his new employers. Spurs targeted their highly rated defender Mateo Musacchio, but Villarreal managed to keep hold of the 25-year-old Argentine.
Historically, Villarreal have been seen as overachievers and are closely followed in the table by Celta de Vigo. Celta currently occupy fourth position after a shock 4-1 victory over Barcelona last week. Celta have their own former Premier League-flop to boot, featuring ex-Liverpool striker Iago Aspas up front.
Both Celta and Villareal may suffer nosebleeds if they continue at their current heights for much longer, but it is always refreshing to see an underdog story. Across Europe, Aberdeen have taken an early lead in the Scottish Premier League title race from serial champions Celtic and in Serie A, Fiorentina and Internazionale sit ahead of four time consecutive champions Juventus.
Photo credit: By Millars (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons