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 By Rob Train

Real Madrid beating Villarreal a bad bet even with someone else's money

ESPN FC's Sid Lowe believes Real Madrid's inability to achieve results in La Liga is taking a mental toll on the players.

When Real Madrid host Villarreal on Saturday, one fortunate spectator will be treated to the VIP box and handed a free €10,000 bet as the winner of a competition organised by a Spanish betting company.

The bookmakers in question did not specify whether -- the winner was announced on Thursday -- gets to keep the stake but it's safe to assume he doesn't. Still, it's a free hit and he will pocket any winnings. Which raises the question: would you bet €10,000, even of somebody else's money, on Real Madrid beating Villarreal in the Bernabeu?

Zinedine Zidane's side -- albeit the reserves -- have failed to beat Segunda B and Segunda opposition in their past two home Copa games and the Frenchman's seniors have won just two Liga fixtures of their past six. Madrid were roundly thrashed by Barcelona in their last league match of 2017 and could not have unduly complained had they been beaten by Celta in their first one of the new year that ended in a 2-2 draw.

Real's title defence has been consigned to the scrap heap at the halfway stage of the season and some players look as though they have mentally and physically already thrown in the towel. That generates an extremely dangerous situation for Zidane, who must rally his side to finish as strongly as possible domestically while also nursing his players back to something approaching last season's Champions League knockout stage form before taking on Paris Saint-Germain next month.

Essentially, Zidane needs to figure out how to bottle the first-half performance against Sevilla in December.

There is also the Copa del Rey to consider. The draw for the quarterfinals takes place on Friday and although the result of that lottery probably won't alter Zidane's thinking for Villarreal, the prospect of another Clasico over 180 minutes after Real were completely outclassed in 90 three weeks ago will loom large if the eternal rivals are paired together, particularly after Barca's manhandling of Celta on Thursday.

Zinedine Zidane looks on during Real Madrid's Copa del Rey round of 16 second leg at the Bernabeu.
Zinedine Zidane is struggling to right the ship in Madrid ahead of a visit from Villarreal.

Villarreal have no such concerns after being knocked out by Leganes and will view their visit to the Bernabeu much like the VIP punter: as a free swing with absolutely nothing to lose.

For Zidane, who professed himself "happy" after Lucas Vazquez carried his reserves over the line in the Copa, his team's performance on Saturday carries much more importance than the result.

Since that almost-perfect 45 minutes against a Sevilla side that did little to discourage their hosts' attacking symphony, Madrid have been hitting all the wrong notes. The game in Balaidos was the football equivalent of handing violins to a room full of chimpanzees and expecting Mozart: the tools were in place but the execution was far from polished. It required another individual performance to deny Celta three points, Gareth Bale stepping up while several of his teammates preferred instead to examine their bootlaces.

The return of the Welshman to fitness has been one of few bright points for Zidane recently and that he has done so in such form is a considerable bonus. Despite featuring for only 929 minutes in 2017-18, Bale is Madrid's joint second-highest scorer alongside Marco Asensio -- who hasn't found the net since the beginning of November -- and behind only Isco in assists, with the Spain midfielder providing one more in almost double the amount of playing time. Under the circumstances, Bale can expect a marauding free role on Saturday.

In recent seasons Real have not greatly profited from this fixture, a 3-0 win in 2016 bookended by two 1-1 draws. Zidane's side at least will not have to contend with Villarreal's leading scorer, Cedric Bakambu, who has jumped Submarine to the Chinese Super League after Beijing Guoan met his €40-million buy-out clause and offered wages of €18m a season. Villarreal's third-highest scorer this season, Nicola Sansone, is injured.

Bakambu's replacement came from the same source, Roger Martinez joining on loan from Jiangsu Suning until the end of the season. However, it may be too early to throw the Colombia international into the fray with just 18 minutes in the Copa under his belt, so the visitors' line is likely to be led by Martinez's international teammate Carlos Bacca with Enes Unal alongside him and Pablo Fornals pulling the strings.

Real's midfield will also face a challenge to keep Rodri from exerting his influence. A sort of Toni Kroos-Casemiro hybrid, the Spain under-21 international ranks fourth in La Liga in completed passes and has made more recoveries than any of his teammates.

Villarreal coach Javi Calleja has blended these ingredients to mastermind consecutive 1-0 away wins against stellar opposition in Celta and Valencia and will be plotting something similar in the Bernabeu. For his part, Zidane needs to turn crisis into renewed confidence as swiftly as possible.

Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.

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