MADRID, Jan. 2 (Xinhua) -- Real Madrid get the ball rolling in the Spanish Liga Santander on Thursday night when they travel to the east of Spain to play struggling Villarreal.
The game corresponds to the round of matches played the weekend before Christmas which Real Madrid missed as they were competing in the Club World Cup in the UAE, which they won by beating Al Ain 4-1 in the final on December 22nd.
The Liga Santander games played before Christmas saw all of Real Madrid's title rivals win, with FC Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla all taking three points to leave Madrid eight points behind Barca, so it's vital for Santiago Solari's side to also win in the Estadio de la Ceramica if they are to keep in touch.
Solari is without central midfielder Marcos Llorente, who injured himself in training on Wednesday. Llorente won a place in the starting 11 before Christmas and was important during December and although Casemiro should be able to replace him in the Madrid midfield, the Brazilian is still lacking full fitness.
Striker Mariano Diaz's frustrating return to the club continues with the news he will miss out with a back problem.
Villarreal receive Madrid in the relegation zone, but know that a draw will be enough to lift them above Athletic Club on goal difference.
Coach Luis Garcia, who replaced Javier Calleja before Christmas, is without suspended right back Mario Gaspar and is likely to play the defensive Javi Fuego in central midfield.
Villarreal have punched below their weight this season and in strikers Gerard Moreno who scored the only goal as his former club Espanyol beat Madrid last year, Carlos Bacca and Toko Ekambi, they have a mixture of height and pace able to cause problems to the Madrid defense.