Real Madrid visit Villarreal tonight, with coach Manuel Pellegrini returning for the first time to the club where he enjoyed so much success. "He'll be made to feel welcome," says Villarreal striker Joseba Llorente, "But not too welcome. He's coming here with nine points from three games and a very strong squad. He's well respected but we need points and I hope he leaves Villarreal with nothing."
He is keen to continue the excellent form that his side has demonstrated this season, but also that his new club has enjoyed in the past against Villarreal. Backed by the millions from club president Fernando Roig's ceramic company, Villarreal emerged as a Spanish football power under Pellegrini after spending most of their history playing before 200 fans in regional leagues. In their five seasons under the former engineer, Villarreal twice came second in the Primera Liga and never finished below 7th. He took the team from a town of just 43,000 into Europe, where they reached the Champions League semi and quarter finals - losing both times to Arsenal.
Champions League football was a test for a town with just one hotel and six taxi drivers, but Villarreal continually expanded their El Madrigal home above the neighbouring apartments which once overlooked the pitch to its current 26,000 capacity. All those seats with be occupied tonight. They also attracted top level talents like Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan and Marcos Senna with the promise of an attractive salary and even more appealing football. They were not ageing players after a final pay-off, but still youthful falling stars whose careers needed a new direction and a lift from Pellegrini.
Despite their achievements, Villarreal seldom got the better of Real Madrid. At El Madrigal, they boast a superior record against every other team in the Primera Liga. Barca have visited ten times, winning four and losing five, while giants like Valencia and Athletic Bilbao routinely get hammered. Not Madrid. In their 20 meetings, Villarreal have triumphed just twice, drawing six and losing twelve times. One of those victories came as Madrid imploded at the end of last season, but while Villarreal have beaten Barca three times in the Camp Nou, they have never won in the Santiago Bernabeu.
Pellegrini was replaced by Ernesto Valverde, 45, the former Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol coach who arrived after leading Greek side Olympiakos to their domestic title last season. The former Barca player has so far been unable to recapture the form enjoyed under Pellegrini and the Yellow Submarines lie 17th. Without a league win after three matches, they have drawn their opening two games against Osasuna and Mallorca and lost to Athletic Bilbao.
They have been without their injured playmaker Marcos Senna, though his Spanish international teammates Santiago Cazorla and Joan Capdevila are fit and the form of their new record signing Nilmar has been encouraging. The Brazilian scored the only goal in last week's 1-0 Europa League victory over an excellent Levski Sofia. Madrid will start without Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the luckless striker who injured himself while scoring their fifth goal against Xerez on Sunday. The Dutchman replaced Ronaldo - now favourite to be the Primera Liga's top goalscorer, an honour won by Van Nistelrooy in 2005 - with 12 minutes to play.
In that time he set up Karim Benzema for his first Madrid goal (with Benzema glowing: "It's so easy playing with Ruud") and scored himself in the 89th minute, slipping the ball through goalkeeper Renan's legs and slipping himself in the process. "I am overwhelmed by the fans' support," Van Nistelrooy said after the game following a 10 month lay off with a knee problem. "This team can improve a lot and I want to be part of it. As for my injury, I will have an MRI and hope it isn't anything serious. I worked very hard to return and everything has gone well."
Unfortunately, the scan showed a damaged left thigh muscle which will keep him out for another six weeks. In tonight's other Primera Liga matches, Atletico Madrid hope to change their dreadful start with a home game against Almeria. Espanyol entertain Malaga, pointless Xerez host Deportivo La Coruna, Getafe play Valencia while Tenerife meet an Athletic Bilbao side who've won every game. firstname.lastname@example.org
Villarreal v Real Madrid, KO 10pm, Aljazeera Sport +2 Getafe v Valencia, KO midnight, Aljazeera Sport +2