Sunday’s noon match at the Vicente Calderón pits Atlético legends against each other, as Diego Pablo Simeone’s Atleti host José Francisco Molina’s Villarreal.
The clash marks both men’s return to the iconic Rojiblanco stadium 16 years after they took part in the mythical 1995/96 Doblete-winning season together, arguably the club’s most glorious campaign.
“I feel great affection and love for Molina,” Simeone said of his former team-mate earlier in the week.
“It will be a lovely meeting. Surely the people will receive him the way he deserves, for everything he has given our Atlético.
“I expect it to be a tough game. In the middle of the field they have players with great ball-handling skills.”
Despite the key absence of their top scorer through suspension, Simeone warns Villarreal will pose a dangerous threat.
“We’ll see how they replace Marco Ruben,” he said.
“Surely they’ll come out to hurt us taking advantage of spaces and taking away the ball from us. We’ll look to inject a high pace into the match and, obviously, to cause them some damage from the beginning.”
Rojiblanco hitman Radamel Falcao will aim to get back into a goalscoring groove against a side he feasted on last season while with Porto in Europa League play.
The Colombian found the back of the net four times in two games against the Valencian outfit en route to his record-breaking 17 goal total in the UEFA competition he ended up winning with the Dragões.
In our 0-0 tie in Málaga, Falcao appeared exasperated at times and, like much of the season, looked far too isolated as the lone striker. He rarely posed any sort of danger to our foes, well, to our foes’ net at least.
‘El Tigre’ was certainly a menace to our opponents’ health as he led the team in the foul department with an astonishing total of six.
Simeone hinted at his starting XI all through training this week, and after leaving Adrián and Arda Turan off the starting line-up at Málaga, ‘El Cholo’ experimented with a first team that included the pair.
The former Deportivo striker is set to appear alongside Falcao up top, while Arda will man the left wing in what all signs point to a 4-4-2 setup.
Tiago, Gabi and Diego will round out the rest of the midfield, while Eduardo Salvio looks to be the odd man out after being included in the fold last weekend.
Our back line will most probably be made up by Filipe, Godín, Miranda and Juanfran, though it was rumoured in the Spanish press that Simeone is seriously considering handing Atleti youth academy product Jorge Pulido a start in place of Miranda.
Defenders Luis Perea and Álvaro Domínguez will serve a one-match ban on Sunday after each saw their fifth yellow card last weekend.
Left off the match selection through tactical decision were Manzano’s pet midfielder Mario Suárez, along with Joel and Sìlvio.
The Portuguese right back was cleared to play by team doctors on Thursday after a close to two-month injury lay-off, but is not fully fit to play just yet.
El Cholo’s men have been blanked in their last three matches, and will hope to find success with a more offensive approach and a jam-packed stadium celebrating the return of an idol.
Villarreal are a side historically undaunted by their Rojiblanco opponents’ significantly deeper pockets.
In recent seasons, the two teams have been direct rivals for a Champions League berth, with the Yellow Submarine finishing in fourth in the 2010/11 edition of La Liga.
This year however, the story is much different.
While they remain direct rivals with only a four point difference between them, on Sunday, they will be fighting each other for a different objective: to stave off the threat of relegation.
Under the direction of former coach Juan Carlos Garrido, who suffered the same fate as Gregorio Manzano, el Submarino only won three of 16 league matches.
Plagued with a rash of injuries, Garrido’s squad paled in comparison to the plucky and well-organised Villarreal of seasons past that had become the darlings of Spain.
Molina, who was serving as Villarreal B’s coach, took over when Garrido was sacked over the holiday break.
In the former Atleti goalkeeper’s first game in charge, el Submarino squandered a 2-0 lead over Valencia at the Madrigal, though they were ultimately able to secure a point from the encounter that ended in a 2-2 draw.
But with only 16 points in their favour, they dropped to 18th in the league standings.
“I am optimistic about Sunday because Villarreal tries to always have the ball, wherever we go,” Molina was quoted as saying by ESPN Soccernet.
“Despite our position in the table, when we go on to the field our philosophy doesn’t change.
“I don’t care how long it has been since we won away, the only thing that interests me is winning the game.
“We are going with the maximum motivation to play with great intensity. After that it is normal that the best team will win and we have to ensure that it is us and we take the three points.”
Marco Ruben will be unavailable for el Submarino through suspension (five yellows), while star forward Giuseppe Rossi remains sidelined with a knee injury.
Also out through injury for Villarreal are Catalá, Camuñas and Wakaso.
Atlético match selection:
Goalkeepers: Courtois, Sergio Asenjo
Defenders: Godín, Antonio López, Filipe Luis, Miranda, Pulido
Midfielders: Tiago, Salvio, Arda, Paulo Assunçao, Gabi, Koke, Juanfran, Diego
Forwards: Adrián, Falcao, Pizzi
Villarreal match selection:
Goalkeepers: Diego López, Mariño
Defenders: Joan Oriol, Mario, Gonzalo, Ángel, Marchena, Zapata
Midfielders: Marcos Senna, Bruno, Hernán Pérez, Musacchio, Cani, Borja Valero, De Guzmán, Castellani
Forwards: Nilmar, Joselu
Referee: Javier Turienzo Álvarez
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