If Villarreal is relegated in 2011-12, our Valencian neighbors Levante will have had a lot to do with it. In the first leg, a 0-3 thrashing at El Madrigal. And this festive afternoon at the Ciutat de Valencia, a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat on a stoppage time free kick following the infantile sending-off of "veteran" Carlos Marchena.
Comparing lineups between October and now, Levante made two enforced changes: newcomer Cabral for the departed Nano at center back, and newcomer Abdelkader Ghezzal for the injured Juanlu in midfield. Stability is a big part of success.
Villarreal looked very different from that late October match. Now out of favor: Marchena (at center back); de Guzmán (who?), Pérez (we had a sighting late on). Now injured: Catalá; Borja, Cani; Rossi. Only two(!) players retained their position in the starting XI: Diego López and Bruno Soriano. Instability is a big part of failure.
In other team news, Cristián Zapata paired with Mateo Musacchio in central defense (the Colombian was at right back in the first leg). Been a while since we've seen that tandem. Mario Gaspar returned at right back, Joan Oriol on the left, and Alejandro Martinuccio and Gonzalo Castellani played as wide midfielders. Three strikers in the team, with Nilmar and Marco Ruben starting up front.
I was tempted to leave this blank. No shots on goal and precious little attacking flair in the first half. Levante had more of the ball, with Villarreal content to counterattack. How times have changed. Some soft bookings by the referee, as always. Our best player was Martinuccio, who won two dangerous free kicks that Marcos Senna banged into the granota wall.
All in all, another grand spectacle for the Asian viewers.
Half Time: 0-0
The wind and poor pitch conditions played a factor, but our predominant quality was a lack of confidence. So we hoofed the ball upfield looking for a striker, but more often than not found a Levante defender.
Ruben finally registered the game's first shot on goal in 51'(!), but Munúa had no trouble. We didn't test the erratic Uruguayan goalkeeper all match. At the other end, Barkero took a number of set pieces, but our defense dealt well with Levante's aerial threat. López nearly gave away the three points by misjudging a punt in the wind, but he did just enough to drive Arouna Koné away from goal.
Substitutions: Rubén Suárez, Farinós (our former player), and El Zhar entered for the hosts. For the visitors, Marchena replaced Castellani, pushing Senna forward, then Hernán Pérez came on for Martinuccio. Again José Molina subbed the diminutive Argentine amid a stellar performance: why?
Villarreal almost got the good fortune it needs to win a match right now. After a Xavi Torres goal was correctly ruled out for offside, Javi Venta nearly scored an own goal in 82'. Senna sent in a cross from his advanced right midfield position, which Ruben headed down and very nearly in off an unsuspecting Venta. Not to be.
Then Villarreal took matters into its own hands. Marchena was booked in 89', then on a yellow card in the game's final minute, he took down Valdo outside the area. The referee had no choice but to send him off. Thanks for the defensive contributions, Carlos.
Before super-sub Rubén Suárez took the resulting free kick, Molina made his final substitution. Nilmar was pulled out of the two-man wall that López had just formed, and on came noted defensive stalwart Javier Camuñas. Famous last managerial decision. Suárez struck the ball low and hard, Camuñas contorted his body out of the way, the ball hit the post and bounced inward, and Torres tapped in with nary a yellow shirt in sight. The end.
1-0 90'+2 Xavi Torres
The Ciutat de Valencia exploded, and the Levante players formed a dog pile. Musacchio got into a scuffle in the dying seconds of stoppage time, but that was all she wrote.
Full Time: 1-0
Another heartbreaking defeat away from El Madrigal. This time we squandered a hard-fought point. You just hope our survival in the Primera does not come down to that. But it may well, at this rate.