Villarreal CF

Many of the Celtic supporters hoping to watch Villarreal beat Barcelona on Saturday night (KO 9PM UK Time Sky TV) will not have seen the Yellow Submarine play since their two Champions League games against Celtic last season.  Yet no less than 13 of the 14 players who comfortably outplayed Celtic at El Madrigal in September 2008  are likely to be featuring against Barcelona. The only one who has moved on is the Uruguayan hardman Eguren who has been exiled back to Sweden for not hiding his contempt for Pellegrini’s replacement, Valverde.  The only player likely to start on Saturday night who did not play against Celtic last season is the Brazilian international forward Nilmar, bought in summer 2009 for a Villarreal record fee of 15m euros. How a small club from a town of under 50,000 population can afford a 15m euro superstar while a historically great club like Celtic capable of regularly filling its modern 60,000 capacity stadium with crowds greater than the whole population of Villarreal cannot, will be the subject of future examination on GGW.

This post will concentrate instead on providing a quick guide for Celtic supporters and others planning to watch the game on what they might expect to see.

The first thing to look for are Celtic tops and scarves in the crowd. Celtic are the favourite non-Spanish team of almost all Villarreal’s supporters. This love affair with the Bhoys in green dates back to their entrancement at the benign invasion of their small town by massive hordes of Celtic supporters in April 2004. The full story of that invasion and how it led to the formation of a Villarreal Celtic Submari supporters club with over 600 active members and a lasting love affair with everything Celtic on the part of the whole town, will be told in an article for GGW called “Villarreal remembers the day it was invaded by the Celtic hordes” to be posted in the next couple of weeks. Suffice to say now that for many Villarreal fans the Celtic tops and scarves they got in the orgy of clothes swapping that took place during that invasion are a prized possession. Those and the many more acquired during the slightly smaller but equally benign September 2008 invasion are regularly worn with pride in the 4 stands of El Madrigal stadium. As are the half and half Villarreal-Celtic scarves and tops produced by the Celtic Submari. Every year since its formation in 2005 the Villarreal Celtic Submari Penya have organised well subscribed visits to Celtic Park which have resulted in the bringing back of much more Celtic gear. Look too for the massive Celtic Submari banner, with the crest of both clubs. It will be hung behind the goal on the right hand end as you look at the pitch on TV.

The second thing which is guaranteed is attractive attacking football. For 5 years under Manuel Pellegrini Villarreal played a fast attacking game based on possession, passing and positive use of space. Pellegrini made Villarreal not only very successful (a 2nd and 3rd place finish in La Liga, and semi-finalists and quarter finalists in the Champions League) but as importantly for the wise men that run the club and their supporters, he made Villarreal always very attractive to watch.

There was a long and painful hiccough from the start of this season when his replacement Valverde fiddled about indecisively and left the players unsure exactly what he wanted from them. Since he was sacked at the end of January, new coach Garrido, well grounded in the club and the Pellegrini way, restored the basic Pellegrini principles and approach based on the three Ps of Possession, Passing and Pressure. But Garrido is not just a Pellegrini clone. He is his own man and has proved more adventurous than Pellegrini ever was, instituting a fluid 4:3:3 pattern. Under him Villarreal have severed all links with the relegation zone where Valverde had them mired too long and have climbed up the table to their current season high position of 6th, where they can legitimately dream of European qualification.

The third thing to note will be their positive approach to the game and their illustrious opponents. Unlike most if not all other Spanish teams Villarreal are not frightened of Barcelona. In the 21 fixtures they have shared in Villarreal’s 11 seasons in the top flight they have a 50-50 record with 8 victories, 8 defeats and 5 draws. Their record at the Madrigal is better than equal. This season, even in the midst of a bad spell they have been the only team to go to the Camp Nou and not lose. So they will enter the pitch expecting to win, not seeking to avoid humiliation as do most other teams.

They have positively claimed, in the pre-match analysis of the game that has been going on all week, that they can become the first team ever to have a greater share of possession of the ball than Guardiola’s Barcelona. Now as Barcelona proved on Wednesday where they shattered all records for a top class game involving top teams by having nearly 90% of it,  possession doesn’t guarantee victory. But as the last two seasons have proved it becomes very hard to beat Guardiola’s team when you don’t get much of the ball. Hopefully the rumours are correct and Xavi wont be fit enough to play. Even half-fit against Inter he made 3 times as many passes himself as the whole Inter team(yes the whole team) put together. It has been a common GGW theme for the last 2 years that Xavi is the most influential player in the world. GGW reckons more people will opt for that view now after the two quiet games offered by Messi against Inter when it really mattered

The fourth thing to look for is the comparison between the two goalkeepers. In the 3 seasons since he moved from the soul-destroying shadow of Casillas at Real Madrid Diego Lopez has become recognised as a goalkeeper of the very highest class. Spanish manager Del Bosque has capped him and included him in his 23 names for the World Cup Finals, just behind Casillas and Liverpool hero Pepe Reina. No-one at Villarreal; coaching staff, Directorate or supporters, will hear a bad word said about Pepe Reina. He did very well for Villarreal in his seasons with them and made the club a substantial profit when he was sold onto Liverpool. But their unbiased opinion is that Diego Lopez is at least as good, probably even slightly better.

Victor Valdes has been seen for years as a relative weakness in the Barcelona line-up. However last season under Guardiola he was in superb form winning the Zamora award for best goalkeeper. He has continued his good form into this season and the Barcelona press have mounted a vigorous campaign to get him on the plane to South Africa. Jose Manuel Llaneza the Villarreal Chief Executive now widely recognised as probably the best, most effective and shrewdest Chief Executive in the football world as well as the hardest working, commented on this campaign the other day. “Why” he asked “when people demand Valdes be put on the plane, do they assume it will be Diego Lopes who comes off it, why not Reina or Casillas”. In his own blunt way he was emphasising his view that Diego Lopez is as good as any goalkeeper in the world. Which is why he will not sell him in the summer for less than 25m euros and hopefully refuse all offers of that amount or more. However the smart money has been saying for 2 years that he will end up as Van der Saar’s replacement at Manchester United.

Watch out for the back four in front of Lopez. A recent GGW post revealed how centre back Diego Godin is now widely recognised as one of the finest defenders in world football, with another 25 m euro price tag. Garrido has reunited him in the centre of defence with Argentinean internationalist Gonzalo Rodriguez. Together Godin and Gonzalo are known as the Double G, a powerful defensive force, the envy of many richer clubs. One of the main GGW complaints against Valverde was not only that he split up the Double G, dropping Gonzalo, but that more shamefully he actively briefed against him to journalists, claiming he had irretrievably lost his speed and potency and was finished at the top level. His performances over the past 3 months show that to be a typical Valverde misassessment. Gonzalo is unlikely to be in Maradona’s World Cup squad but he is a better centre half than all those like Coloccini and Heinze who will.

Look out for big Joan Capdevilla at left back. That the Chapter of my “Yellow Submarine” book on him is called “Tommy Gemmell is alive and well and playing in Villarreal” says it all. A throwback to the likes of Facchetti and Gemmell, big Capdevilla is defensively sound but inherently attacking. He has scored many memorable and vital goals for both Villarreal and Spain and will be first choice left back in South Africa after winning Euro2008. The right back, Angel, is good enough defensively to have played for Spain but lacks the attacking flair necessary to bring right-sided balance to the wide attacking system favoured by Pellegrini.

It is in midfield that Garrido has selection problems, because of his strength in depth. For the more defensive central midfield slot he has a choice between Marcos Senna and Bruno. To the surprise of many Celtic supporters he will probably choose Bruno. The Marcos Senna fairy tale is worth a chapter in any book. Born poor and black in a Brazilian favela, he ended up captaining Spain to success in Euro 2008, in addition to all his achievements with Villarreal. His strong value base has already been demonstrated with his launch of the Marcos Senna Foundation to assist deprived children. However a series of injuries since his Euro 2008 high spot have meant he is no longer the commanding colossus he once was. There are doubts about his level of fitness and other Garrido doubts that will explained in the forthcoming GGW post “The Curious Case of the Lips that moved in the night” Bruno has over the same period finally matured into a strong footballer worth a place.

For the other two more advanced midfield roles he has 3 primary candidates and 2 strong secondary ones. If Garrido believes Santi Cazorla, the third Villarreal Euro 2008 hero, is back to full fitness he would surely definitely get one place. However the most he has played over the past 3 months is last week’s 35 minutes against Racing Santander, where he did grab his chance and played very well. The other two candidates are wily and very skilled Argentinean international Ibagaza, and fit Spanish star Cani. The two most likely to be in reserve are David Fuster strong, determined and skilful, and Argentinean prospect Escudero, who cost 6m euros but has never really had a sustained chance to show his abilities.  Robert Pires, still capable of enormous influence over shorter spells, has been dropped from the squad for today’s game after missing two days training on personal business.

The front 3 will consist of  workhorse centre forward Joseba Llorente ( not the World Cup Llorente who plays for Bilbao) flanked by Nilmar on his right and Giuseppe Rossi on his left. Llorente is a hard worker who will run unselfishly all day but he lacks the good close control required for the very top class. However he did manage to score two goals at the Camp Nou last season. Nilmar the fast skilful Brazilian has shown why he is worth the 15m euros paid for him and excitingly although he is already top scorer the best of him is still to come. Rossi recently lost 2 months of the season due to the illness and death of his father. Since his return he has been unlucky with many chances just missing. For example the shot that came back off the post against Getafe at a time when Villarreal were dominating  a game they eventually lost 3-0. But he is fast, skilful enough to be in line for a World Cup place with Italy and one day soon somebody will suffer as it all goes right for him.

GW editor watching Garrido work

Sitting in the sun the other day watching Villarreal train (Editor’s note. The sacrifices made for GGW are hard, 2 hours sitting in the warm Spanish spring sunshine watching 22 top class players take part in a highly competitive training game) it was not possible to get a clear indication of Garrido’s starting lineup. But bet on Bruno being in. If the midfield three are Bruno, Cazorla and Ibagaza then he’s totally going for it. Including Cani would be slightly more cautious.  One option is for Garrido to play both Senna and Bruno in the middle and pull Nilmar further back on the right sacrificing his 4:3:3 for a more traditional 4:4:2. Or drop Llorente and put Cazorla out right in a straightforward 4:4:2. Garrido does believe for all his talk about Barcelona being the best team in the world that his team can win all three points and you can bet he will set out his 11 men geared to do so.

One interesting thing noticed at training was that Garrido devoted some considerable time to practicing penalties. It is a sore point at Villarreal that they have not been awarded a penalty all season, while conceding many of a frankly dubious nature. Imagine the intense furore if Real Madrid or Barcelona went a season  without being awarded a penalty. Or the Scottish equivalent upset if Rangers went a month without their usual quota. The referee for the game on Saturday was the last man to give Villarreal a penalty, last season, so maybe the training will pay off. Bet on Rossi to take it and score.

The more than one billion people across all 5 continents of the world that are expected to watch the game live on TV are guaranteed an exciting evening. And the football will be good. GGW is quietly confident that the combination of Villarreal’s high current level of confidence combined with Barca’s psychological bruising from the two intense Inter games will help ensure the Yellow Submarine is still sailing full steam ahead to Europe after the final whistle. What a game to look forward to, that is what Saturday nights are all about is it not!