Four games unbeaten have given Villarreal genuine hope of avoiding relegation but the next few games will be a real test of the Yellow Submarine’s survival chances. First they host Celta Vigo, who start the weekend occupying the last relegation spot and only four points behind Javi Calleja’s side, and then they host Barcelona.
For any team at the wrong end of the table, games against League leaders and presumptive champions are not ones that decide their fate. But packed into a tight schedule as the season comes to a close - Villarreal’s continuing Europa League obligations a factor too - every fixture carries meaning. A defeat at Balaidos to precede the meeting with Barca would end Villarreal’s momentum in emphatic fashion.
Betting sites make Villarreal fifth or sixth favourites to be relegated as things stand, but those odds will change dramatically if they suffer two defeats in the next few days. This isn’t a situation where the Barca game can be written off - every point matters in what remains a compact relegation battle. And points may be less pressing for Barca than Villarreal - they go into the weekend with a 10-point cushion from Atletico Madrid - but that doesn’t mean they’ll give them up without a fight.
Villarreal haven’t beaten Barca since 2008, and that was at Camp Nou. They’ve only recorded eight wins against Barca anywhere, such has been the historical disparity between the clubs and even if Ernesto Valverde did make changes to his XI, with Barca’s own packed schedule in mind, it will still be a strong side taking to the field at La Ceramica. But attention may be more focused on Atletico next weekend, and the Manchester United double-header that begins after that. Could Villarreal take advantage?
Sergio Asenjo, the Villarreal goalkeeper, has pin-pointed the game with Celta as the defining one for the team’s safety. He’s not necessarily wrong, but no fixture can be allowed to obscure any other. If Celta-Villarreal is the proverbial six-pointer, then what would the value be of a shock win over Barca? Villarreal still have to play Leganes, Girona and Huesca, all clubs within a few points. There’s also two Europa League legs with Valencia, and the prospect of a glorious European success now the tournament is down to the last eight.
These are all winnable games - even Valencia, who are 10 places higher in the table but only 11 points better off. By comparison, there are 14 points between seventh and 17th in the Premier League, and 20 points in Serie A. The nature of La Liga this season means a few wins changes the fortunes of most teams, and Villarreal are no different. 10 games without a win between December and February would, in theory, see a team doomed to the drop but if the season ended tomorrow, Villarreal would somehow be saved.
So while neither the Celta game nor the Barca visit will be decisive, they will be significant. Six points, four even, will keep the good feeling going - and that’s vital at this point of the campaign.