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Miracle man Lotina’s biggest test?

New Villarreal coach has pulled off a few shocks — beating Real would be one more

José Francisco Molina is a man who has every right to feel aggrieved that he will not be on the bench at El Madrigal on Wednesday evening in charge of Villarreal. The former goalkeeper, who won the league with Atlético and was between the sticks when Deportivo was still a European force, was appointed to replace Juan Carlos Garrido on December 22, as the small coastal town of Vila-real awoke to the realization that it had just been dumped out of the cup by third-tier Mirandés. Had the miraculous run of the part-timers, whose top goal scorer works in a bank, been guessed at perhaps Garrido would have survived; both Espanyol and Racing later fell to the giant killers.

Molina, though, lasted just 11 games on the Villarreal bench before being sacked in favor of Miguel Ángel Lotina, known as something of an alchemist in the annals of Spanish soccer: the Basque coach has led Osasuna to Primera, Celta to the Champions League and Espanyol to the King's Cup. But neither was Molina's record that bad. His first game in charge was a 2-2 tie against Valencia and in his short stint he notched up a victory over Sevilla and ties against both Barcelona and Athletic.

Still, it is Lotina who has been entrusted with Villarreal's survival and Real will hope that new-coach syndrome does not infect its own task of keeping its nose ahead of Barça, which played Granada on Tuesday night. Having surrendered its 10-point advantage in a 1-1 tie against Málaga on Sunday, Real knows it can afford no more slip-ups if it is to wrest the title from Pep Guardiola's team, which has won its last seven without really slipping out of first gear.

For Villarreal, points are a necessity as it faces a very real battle to retain its Primera status; it has gleaned only one from its past five games, the same form as Racing but considerably less profitable than Sporting, which has picked up five in the same period. Both Racing and Sporting have 24 points to Villarreal's 27.

The Yellow Submarine, though, has a tougher run-in than its direct relegation rivals: Zaragoza, rock bottom with 19 points, is likely to stay exactly where it is between now and May.

"The situation is not comfortable, but the challenge is exciting," said Lotina when he accepted the post early on Monday. "I want to talk to all the players separately to see how they are emotionally. I see they have plenty of desire to move forward, although logically they are worried. Soccer is a state of emotion and Real Madrid will be a good test for us."

Also on Wednesday, Atlético hosts Athletic in a Champions League-chasing clash at the Calderón. The visitor has struggled in its past two league games, going down 3-0 to Valencia and 2-1 to Osasuna after its midweek Europa League exertions against Manchester United.

It would be a terrible shame if continental commitments robbed Athletic, one of the most attractive sides in Spain this season, of the chance to sit at Europe's top table next year, and this type of game, against a direct challenger for fourth, is exactly the sort it must go all out to win. The maladroit machinations of the Liga schedulers have given Athletic one day of rest between its away Europa League fixture against Schalke and a visit to Camp Nou on March 31; as if Barcelona required a helping hand at its own stadium.

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