What a win for the Yellow Submarine. After a season of suffering, we are almost there. Salvation is a Levante win tomorrow away, or (at most) a victory in one of our final two matches.
For Villarreal, Carlos Marchena replaced Rubén Cani as the only change in Miguel Ángel Lotina's starting XI. So the dreaded trivote was back, this time in the most crucial match (arguably) in club history. Good thing it worked out.
For Sporting, star striker David Barral continued his disciplinary absence from the side, and Javier Clemente started in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, depending on who you ask. Colunga, Sangoy, and Trejo are all strikers, but 'midfielders' Lora and Gálvez are actually defenders. Go figure.
El Molinón was sold out for this encounter, with the home fans believing in a miracle after three wins in four. Villarreal had posted only one win in six, though that stretch featured but one loss. A #Lotinazo was well within reach.
And the Yellow Submarine started brightly, though I missed the opener. Even if I had been watching, I may not have believed Mario Gaspar's striker-like finish. I could have sworn it was Marco Ruben. Textbook.
Borja Valero pried open the Sporting defense (as he would time and again) and sprung Bruno Soriano, who failed to beat rojiblanco keeper Juan Pablo one-on-one. But the rebound came back to our man from Artana, and he waited patiently for an oncoming attacker. And lo and behold, Mario arrived in the area, Bruno picked him out, and our right back crashed in a sliding finish. Give credit to Mario: after sitting for months, he has performed admirably under Lotina and arguably has surpassed Ángel López on the depth chart.
0-1 19' Mario
Lots of fouls and feistiness followed, with the Sporting players being roared on by a boisterous (and eventually rabid) home following. Cristián Zapata took up wrestling with the rojiblanco strikers, while Hernán Pérez (brilliant on the night) and Botía entered the referee's book.
Out of nothing, Lora leveled the score with a seeing-eye shot from a distance outside the box. The strike wormed its way through a few yellow shirts, then beat Diego López low at his far post. Perhaps López should have had it, but his consistency this year earns him a pass in my book.
1-1 39' Lora
Or maybe my leniency stems from subsequent events. Ruben continued to battle up front, and a loose clearance by Damián sent our physical Argentine striker in on the Sporting goal. Juan Pablo had a good angle on a potential shot, but rojiblanco center back Gregory decided to lunge at the ball. Big mistake.
Ruben was hacked down, the referee awarded the penalty (and a yellow card to Gregory), and up stepped Marcos Senna. He's had issues with penalties in the past, but my mother noted how calm he looked as he approached the spot. Juan Pablo stayed home, Senna picked a low corner, and the Submarine was back on top.
1-2 43' Senna (pen.)
A huge boost for an emotionally fragile Villarreal side, and the Sporting players marched dejectedly into the locker room. But there were 45 minutes left, and the home side was bound to come out firing in the second half.
Half Time: 1-2
The teams traded chances in the opening few minutes of the second half, much more to Sporting's liking (needing a victory) than Lotina's. Then Borja and Hernán combined to put the match out of reach (or so we thought). First Senna picked out Borja in space down the left, then our #20 beat his defender into the box. He waited for the late-arriving Paraguayan, who scuffed the chance off Juan Pablo's post. But the Sporting keeper would not be so lucky a minute later.
From a subsequent throw-in, Borja passed to Hernán in traffic. The Paraguayan dynamo split two defenders, created separation from a third, then blasted a left-footed shot off Juan Pablo's same post. But this time the swerve carried the ball into the net, and Villarreal had finally taken a two-goal lead with significant time left in a match. The last occasion? Our 3-0 victory at El Madrigal in the corresponding fixture.
1-3 56' H. Pérez
Needing three goals for a real chance at salvation, Mendy, Bilic, and Andre Castro all came on for the hosts. But Clemente did not roll the dice until ten minutes remained, taking off center back Botía for the Portuguese midfielder. Ángel and Wakaso Mubarak had replaced Senna and Marchena, respectively, in the trivote, but the match was dire save for Hernán's dynamism. How did he rot on the bench for so long?
Sadly, after nearly 85 minutes of good Zapata, the bad Zapata reared its ugly head. A misplaced header on the edge of the box went straight to Gálvez, who made no mistake with the opportunity. The third goal by a 'defender' on the night, a lifeline for Sporting, and El Molinón was alive once again.
2-3 85' Gálvez
Sangoy immediately had a chance, but he was ruled offside, and López made the save anyhow. But Clemente was tossed by the referee, and the stream of debris directed at Villarreal players intensified. Gonzalo Rodríguez replaced my MOTM Hernán in 89', which ordinarily would have been close to the end of the match.
But Borja went to take a corner after Ruben nearly scored Villarreal's fourth, and El Molinón lost control. Whether out of anger at perceived time-wasting (Gonzalo was booked for it in 90'+6) or frustration at sitting on the edge of the precipice, paper, bottles, cans, and even a lighter descended onto the pitch. Something similar must have occurred near the Villarreal bench, as César Sánchez (he gets a mention!) was sent off for expressing his ire at the fans.
After over seven additional minutes, the referee blew for time, and the Villarreal players celebrated like they had won the league. Borja in particular was exuberant. Spare a thought for virtually relegated Sporting: Lora was in tears, and Bruno notably went over to console him. A classy finish to a riveting game. From a competitive standpoint, at least.
Full Time: 2-3
But there may still be work to be done, notes Lotina. Let's hope Levante can defeat Zaragoza tomorrow at La Romareda and allow us to relax for the final two jornadas. Considering how the year has gone, however, I don't think it's likely. Expect to need at least a result either away to Valencia or at home against Atlético Madrid.
But for now, we rejoice. Endavant Villarreal!