Wow. What a game in El Madrigal. Villarreal defeated Girona 4-1, and in doing so are now joint second with Almeria (who defeated Elche 2-1 this morning). It was not as easy as the scoreline might suggest, and though Villarreal were clearly the better side on the day, full praise to Girona for playing some excellent football themselves.
Villarreal CF: Juan Carlos; Mario, Musacchio, Mellberg, Jaume Costa; Aquino (Jonathan Pereira, 69’), Bruno, Tito Canteros (Manu Trigueros, 67’), Cani; Uche and Perbet (Joan Oriol, 83’).
Girona FC: Dani Mallo; Jose, Richy, Chus Herrero, David García (Juanlu, 73’); Toni Moral, Luso, Tébar, Migue (Moisés, 13’), Felipe (Eloi, 81’); and Acuña.
The first half was somewhat similar to that against Elche. Villarreal scored an early goal, but though clearly superior weren't able to add any more before the half ended. Whatever intentions Girona might have had to sit back and defend, knowing Villarreal had to win and they could be content with a draw, ended within four minutes. Villarreal broke forward with Aquino sliding the ball forward to Canteros, and his one-touch pass released Uche past the Girona defense. Goalkeeper Dani Mallo tried to come and snuff out the danger but too late, and the Nigerian's finish was perfectly placed. 1-0 to Villarreal, and the crowd was expecting more.
But although Villarreal were controlling play, they were not finding it easy to create much, though Perbet should have done better than to shoot straight at the keeper when receiving a quick pass (from Uche) at the top of the box in space. I felt a 1-0 lead at the break was just about right, though we did create a couple of chances near the end of the half. Girona's best opportunity came from a freekick that Juan Carlos barely saw--Mario Musacchio inexplicably ducking as the ball came toward him--but punched away to safety.
The referee (Eduardo Prieto) was poor, as so often happens, failing to give yellow cards for obvious pullbacks of our attacks. Aquino was again the victim of much of this, but Cani, Bruno and Perbet were each repeatedly fouled with little punishment. The half ended with Villarreal preparing to take a corner, and there were plenty of whistles around El Madrigal as the officiating crew left the pitch. But hey, the sun was shining, and we were ahead.
HT Villarreal 1-0 Girona
The seocnd half began much as the one against Elche. I don't know what happens at halftime in the visiting locker room at our ground, but Girona came out the same way Elche did--with turbochargers. It was as if they had decided the best defense was to attack, and they immediately focused, as teams have done all season, on our right. Luso and Tebar were important, but the real star was Toni Moral.
In the 51st minute Girona came forward, Moral with the ball in midfield, and Mellberg got caught upfield--his attempt to block the attack simply caromed back off the attacker, and left our defense in full retreat. Moral came forward and chipped Juan Carlos from outside the area, and the Girona fans went crazy. It seemed like the Elche match all over again, especially since for the next five minutes or so Villarreal were at sea. First Girona had a 2-on-1 but Juan Carlos was able to smother the final ball when Acuna couldn't control it, then Moral slipped a pass past Mellberg and into the path of Acuna (I think) and Juan Carlos tipped his shot or cross away at the post and then Musaachio cleared it off the line.
Maybe that was the turning point, because after that Villarreal regained their composure. Uche made an excellent cross that Perbet just couldn't get to in time, and then we should have had a penalty when Moises Hurtado stuck his leg out to stop Jeremy from progressing around him, and then wrestled him down in the area. But no call. We came close from another corner, I remember Cani whistling a shot over the top that the keeper never saw at some point in here, and there was another not-so-legal blocking off of Perbet in the area from a cross but again the referee saw nothing.
By now ( 65 minutes in) the game was going crazy. Action at both ends, high pace, the Submarine players were like ball-seeking torpedoes or something, trying to break up Girona attacks before they could trouble Juan Carlos, and the Girona players were speeding forward as quickly as they could whenever they got the ball. It was wide open action with nary an offside trap to be seen. Mallo made a key save on Uche when he was in all alone, and surely this wasn't going to end 1-1.
At one point (back when we had the lead) Senna had been warming up, but now when we needed goals, Marcelino went first to Manu Trigueros in place of Tito Canteros, and then in the 69th minute took off Aquino and brought on Jony Pereira. It seemed somewhat odd at first, but almost immediately paid dividends.
Cani played a ball that at first looked like it had been mishit--had he played it to Jony's left, he would have been in on goal, but he played it to his right. However, the Girona defender didn't try to clear the ball, and Jony took two touches--the first to give him an angle to center the ball, the second to center it--and Jeremy Perbet arrived at the near post and did the rest. You can see a view from the stands here.
That time the Girona defenders had hung out their keeper to dry, but just seven minutes later Mallo, who has a reputation for being a bit wayward at times, gave up a key goal on a hard Perbet shot after Cani released him into the box again. It was struck quickly and hard, and Mallo got his hands to it, but the ball went in nevertheless. Looking at the replay, it didn't seem as though the keeper got much love afterward from his beleaguered defenders.
Perbet came off shortly afterward for Joan Oriol, and Girona threw everyone forward in an attempt to get back into it, but it was more a case of clearing the bouncing ball than making spectacular saves--at least, that's what I remember now! And in injury time Villarreal scored what could yet prove to be a vital goal, Uche steaming forward and putting a shot right between the keeper's legs to make it 4-1 and win the tiebreak should the two clubs finish tied. Who could have asked for more?
FT Villarreal 4-1 Girona
In his comments afterward, Marcelino praised the fans and the atmosphere in El Madrigal--did I mention how loud it was?--and said that given how the first half went he didn't expect Girona to tie, but we were able to regroup and were clearly superior in the end. Three "finals" are left!
My men of the match: Juan Carlos, Cani, Uche, Perbet (no particular order)