Villarreal blow chance to go top of La Liga

Last night Villarreal blew a great chance to go to the top of La Liga for the first time in their admittedly brief history in La Liga. They had previously , as they say in Spain, gone to sleep top of the league, most recently in some of the early rounds of the 2008-2009 season, but they had never remained top after all the games of a round had been completed.  Any victory last night, over Hercules in Alicante would have seen them clear leaders after all the game in round 7 were complete.

But they failed to take the opportunity and can only have themselves to blame. Hercules are a stuffy side, with two or three good players, but they are not a top class team. But Villarreal failed to dispose of them in the way they should have if they had played to anything like their true form. It was obvious from the start that the crisp passing game that characterises this Villarreal team was not functioning well. Attempted pass after pass that on the training ground or on a better day would have found its way to its intended destination drifted off course, fell short or overshot by a narrow but decisive margin. All the key passers in the team, Senna, Cazorla, Valero, Nilmar, Rossi seemed affected. I don’t know whether it was nerves, or sagging under the burden of responsibility for a historic milestone, but the result was poor football, by normal Villarreal standards. Over the first half, overall possession, usually a killing factoring in Villarreal’s favour actually showed up as 53-47% to Hercules, not a smooth passing team. Their greater possession was due to the number of times Villarreal gave away possession to them with poor passes. It might have been different, they might have relaxed and settled to their normal game, if Nilmar had scored, but after a typical piece of outstanding skill he skinned the centre back, surged forward and cracked an amazing shot, right against the crossbar. Football is definitely a game of fractions, a millimetre here or there can be crucial. Within minutes, Hercules were ahead. At a free kick, stupidly conceded, the Villarreal defensive line naively all came out together leaving no less than 3 Hercules players onside and alone. Valdez the Paraguayan signed in the summer from Dortmund scored easily, leaving even the excellent Diego Lopez with no chance.

Capdevila. Even better than Tommy Gemmell

Fate and the first good move of the night gave Villarreal a chance to equalise before Hercules could settle to their lead. A classically ‘Villarreal’ ball from Cazorla out wide to Angel allowed the full back to cross low into the box where the furthest forward Villarreal player, World Cup hero Capdevila, was able to hook it home. GGW has several times commented on the similarity of Capdevila to old Celtic idol Tommy Gemmell and it is definitely there, but Capdevila is a far better player.

Inspired by this Villarreal began playing some better football. Once more,  the ‘if only’ column had an entry from Rossi when a rocket shot hit the post after good combination play put the wee Italian through. Crucial millimetres again the difference.

Then more defensive deficiency and disaster. Musacchio drifted of his man Trezeguet and although Angel got back to cover, his tackle was comical and the cool Frenchman scored his fourth league goal of the season with ease. It is amazing that such a gifted and prolific goal scorer received no offer from the Premier League or other big clubs and ended up at lowly Hercules.

One perceptive reporter had previewed the game as a clash of forward pairings, with in-form established internationalists Nilmar and Rossi on one side, and Hercules new boys Valdez and Trezeguet on the other. Valdez and Trezeguet both scored from probably their only chances of the night, while both Nilmar and Rossi were denied by woodwork.

Two minutes later a ridiculously over fussy referee who had already needlessly dished out too many yellow cards, sent off Trezeguet, apparently for calling him a pile of shite. Accurate, but not diplomatic or sensible to share it with him.

Round 7 had already seen on the Saturday one amazing half-time transformation when Guardiola somehow turned  around a poor and outplayed Barcelona to produce their best football of the season and end up comfortable winners over  a bemused Valencia. Could Garrido do the same, Villarreal supporters wondered.

Certainly whatever Garrido said, they came out storming and in the first 15 minutes of the half, against admittedly 10 men, they created at least 15 chances. But it was pinball football, with the ball rattling about the Hercules area aimlessly, rather than measured control. In the 60th minute I wrote in my notebook, ‘something has to give, either the defence will crack or Villarreal will lose their intensity and fade’. Both happened.

Borja Valero. A mixed night, one goal two yellow cards

The good news was that Borja Valero, supposedly back in defensive midfield replacing the injured Senna, surged forward and ended a good passing move by smashing home the equaliser. The bad news was that, with the score now 2-2, with nearly 30 minutes to play against ten men, Villarreal did not step up the intensity of pressure which should surely have ensured them a victory. Somehow instead they lost focus, the pressure eased and Hercules were allowed to come back into the game.

Then within two insane minutes Villarreal went from being the team with the extra man to the team with a man less. First Borja Valero, a recipient of one of the earlier needless yellows received a second yellow card for a high foot, and was harshly dismissed. Hercules surged forward with this reprieve and Musacchio was rather harshly adjudged to have used an arm recklessly.

With 8 minutes to go the balance had turned to favour Hercules and it took Diego Lopez at his finest to prevent Villarreal going behind. Garrido decided to settle for the point, taking Rossi of in favour of defender Catala.

Drenthe the man of the match

The man of the match was Hercules Real Madrid reject Drenthe. Before the game he had annoyed the Villarreal camp, claiming he had never seen Villarreal play even on television, preferring to play with his PS3. Against them in the flesh, he was superb in both defence and attack. He ran Angel ragged before switching to the middle and almost scoring the winner.

After the game, Villarreal manager Garrido disappointed GGW, blaming the referee and indulging in a dull whine that country cousins Villarreal never get a fair deal from referees like big clubs do. True the referee was what Trezeguet said, was incompetent and gave a dire performance. But overall his actions favoured Villarreal rather than Hercules. They had almost 40 minutes with a man more and only 8 minutes with a man less. It was not the fault of the referee that they did not beat Hercules but their own inability to play their natural game well.

Two days before, on the Saturday evening I had watched the Villarreal B team for the first time this season. They were fortunate to obtain a 2-2 draw at home against league leaders Celta. The full implications of what I saw will be examined soon in a future GGW post “Something in Reserve?” but not unnaturally, after losing 10 players over the summer to the first team pool, the current team are not as strong as last years, and will do well to maintain a place in mid table.

Yet followers of Villarreal should not be too downhearted. Yes it would have been nice to end up top of the league exactly a year after being bottom of it. And for me it would have been wonderful to end my forthcoming book about the miracle of Villarreal, with them in first place in La Liga, having started it with them in second place.  But if at the beginning of the summer, the Devil had offered any follower of Villarreal a deal that after 7 games of the new season, Villarreal would be in second place, ahead of Barcelona and Valencia, and well ahead of Atletico Madrid and Sevila, and only one point behind Real Madrid, while also being active in the Europa League, they would have bitten his arm off while debating how much of their soul to offer him. Even my old sparring partner Mossen Guillermo the famous club priest might have seen that deal as worth consideration.

And here we are now,  with the deal in place, and no portion of the soul sold. Villarreal will play much better again than they did last night. All is still to play for and the future looks yellow.