Real Madrid vs Valencia | Saturday 09 May | Santiago Bernabeu | 20:00
Real Madrid's title bid comes to a crucial point on Saturday when they host fourth-placed Valencia. The European champions sit second in La Liga, two points behind leaders Barcelona with just three matches to play. Of their remaining three fixtures, this looks to be their toughest challenge while Barcelona have a much sterner test away to Atletico Madrid in their penultimate match of the season next weekend. Valencia have an opportunity to dent Real’s title hopes but more importantly boost their own chances of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League as they look to move further away from fifth place Sevilla who are three points adrift of them. It was Valencia who ended Real’s magnificent record of 22 consecutive La Liga wins in January of this year, coming from behind to beat them 2-1 after Cristiano Ronaldo scored an early penalty.
To Win (90mins)
Real Madrid 9/20
Ronaldo's hat-trick on Saturday helped Los Blancos beat Sevilla 3-2 to stay in touch with La Liga leaders Barcelona. Barca's 8-0 thrashing of Cordoba earlier in the day put pressure on Real to get a result against a Sevilla side that had not lost at home in 35 matches. It was an exciting game with both sides pushing hard in attack. Carlo Ancelotti would have been relieved to have won that match, given some pretty dreadful defending at times. The hosts were, on balance, perhaps unlucky to lose their long home unbeaten record. In the end, the key difference was that one team had Ronaldo playing for them; his three goals, particularly the two-goal burst midway through the first half, arrived at pivotal moments to keep Sevilla in check. It wasn’t quite a one-man show, with Ronaldo poaching his goals to end flowing team moves, and Gareth Bale making a key intervention from the bench for Ronaldo’s third. Ronaldo is now two goals ahead of Lionel Messi in the scoring charts.
Real come into this game in exquisite form having won seven straight Liga fixtures since losing 2-1 to Barcelona, and scoring 24 goals in the process. Ronaldo's sixth hat-trick of the campaign also took him past a long-standing club record of 28 hat-tricks held by Real legend Alfredo Di Stefano since 1964. Real have shown the depth of their squad lately as they have been able to overcome the significant losses of Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema to injuries. In the absence of Bale and Benzema, James Rodriguez and Javier Hernandez have stepped up to aid Ronaldo in finding the net for Ancelotti's men. Rodriguez has scored four times in the last six matches to boost his tally to 16 in the campaign in all competitions, while Hernandez has demonstrated his value to the team by scoring the winner in Real’s Champions League quarter-final victory over rivals Atletico and then following that up with a brace against Celta Vigo. Benzema has missed the last six league games because of a knee injury, but is likely to hand a further boost to a Real team who saw Bale make his comeback at Sevilla.
Valencia's hopes of a Champions League spot inched closer after a comfortable win over Eibar last weekend. The home side led 1-0 at the interval courtesy of a back-post header from Nicolas Otamendi. Los Che's second arrived in the 56th minute when Dani Parejo found the top corner, before Paco Alcacer added a third for the dominant hosts 20 minutes from time. Valencia now have 72 points; more than in any season since they won La Liga in 2004. The Bats have had some hiccups this season but Sevilla's loss to Real Madrid gives them the perfect opportunity to stay above their rivals as seven points (two wins and a draw) in their remaining matches will prove enough to cement their place in next seasons Champions League. Valencia will be going all out for the win here but even a draw will set them up for glory as they will host Celta Vigo next weekend and then play away to Almeria in the final gameweek.
Manager Nuno Santo has opted for either Alcacer or Alvaro Negredo to spearhead their three-pronged attack and both have impressed whether starting or coming off the bench. Valencia are a good confident team, bristling with attitude and pace, but their most impressive aspect this season has been their defensive game. Their 27 goals conceded from 35 matches is the third best in the league behind Barca and Atletico, and five goals less than Real have managed to keep out. Valencia’s away form this season has been inconsistent and they will need to be at the top of their game to claim points at the Santiago Bernabeu. While only losing four of their 17 travels, Los Che have managed just six victories, drawing seven times. They have scored just 23 goals on the road, 33 less than Real have scored at home.
VERDICT: Real Madrid 9/20
The return of Benzema to the team to form an attacking trio with Ronaldo and Bale should see sweet revenge for Madrid. The three stars have scored a combined 70 goals between them in La Liga, six more than Valencia have managed as a team. Valencia’s first round victory was their first in 12 matches against Real, with Los Blancos ousting Los Che eight times during that six year unbeaten run. Real have been impeccable at home winning 15 of their 17 matches and losing just once to Atletico. The home win should prevail.