(if you missed Part 1 of this article, click here to read about the trip to Vila-real and Sid's welcome!)
Game time at El Madrigal. As we find our gate and run into Els Flamencs Grocs again, the announcer is calling out the starting XI. After every player’s name, the crowd lets out a sí. The atmosphere is building.
We get stopped at the gate for carrying an empty water bottle – with no cap is OK. And everyone has brought in food – thankfully Spanish stadiums do not double as overpriced, low-quality restaurants. But all is forgotten with our first look at the pitch.
We walk in from a sleepy town, enter a stadium with flies hovering around the restrooms, and then encounter a magnificent field of dreams. We are still taking it all in as we stand with the Agrupación de Penyas (APV) in their corner section – across the ground from the Colectivo Aldeano, the other main supporter group. They have confetti; we have a drummer.
A moment of silence for a former Villarreal legend – El Madrigal goes quiet. Then the referee blows his whistle, the horns and noise return, and the game is underway. Sunlight pours in, and we are basking in a warm May afternoon with thousands of our new closest friends.
On this day, Villarreal looks in fine form. Our best player over the last number of weeks, Mexican international Javier Aquino, continues to torment opposing fullbacks. And out of nothing, he jukes two defenders, worms into the box, and wins a penalty!
The excitement builds as fellow winter arrival Jérémy Perbet takes the ball. El Madrigal is confident that he will score. Lights, camera, action; Perbet sends the Elche keeper the wrong way. 1-0 on just 8’. Time for another goleada?
That looks likely for the opening half-hour. The yellow wave, boosted by the largest turnout of the season, has the league leaders hemmed in – Villarreal keeper Juan Carlos is a mere spectator. Héctor Canteros and Bruno Soriano are bossing the central midfield, and the wing players are going forward with purpose.
Then a key moment – much of El Madrigal celebrates another Perbet finish, but we see the flag up. A tight call, but it seemed the French striker could have held up his run. Gerard Moreno found the yellow #7 in acres of space, and the play unfolded in front of Perbet, so call it a let-off for the ilicitanos.
And the visitors take full advantage. The field tilts after the disallowed goal, and Elche starts coming. The green-and-white creative midfielders in their 4-2-3-1 start to find pockets of time and space in front of the Villarreal back four, enlivening the cage of away fans at the opposite end of the ground. All the same, the hosts hold a deserved halftime lead…but it should have been more.
HT Villarreal 1-0 Elche
After the break, Elche turns the screw. Olof Mellberg and Mateo Musacchio had not convinced in limited action in the first half, and the Swede’s rust shows in the final 45 minutes. Memories of last season.
First, Elche turns defense into offense. A counterattack develops into a three-on-two, the ilicitanos execute to perfection, and Carles Gil slots it home. 1-1 on 50’.
But wait, there’s more. Bruno turns the ball over in his own half – a no-no. The Elche midfield turns on the afterburners to create an odd-man rush, Generelo finds space in the box, and he makes no mistake. 1-2 on 53’. El Madrigal is on its heels.
Ring in the changes: Ikechukwu Uche for Gerard, Manu Trigueros for Canteros, and super-sub Jonathan Pereira for Cani. Some resentment at the Nigerian striker’s introduction, perhaps now in part that Marcelino García Toral spoke out on his behalf. Manu and Jony were more warmly received, but a goal resisted the Yellow Submarine.
Trigueros was involved from his arrival on the pitch, taking the set pieces that Villarreal began to create late on. And it was a set piece that produced the equalizer. Perbet got a touch to a dangerous free kick, and the Elche keeper went down to make a save. But the rebound caromed to substitute Uche, and he banged into an empty net. 2-2 with 10’ left.
Villarreal’s play had gradually built up after a long hiatus, and the submarino came forward in search of three points. Neither team was satisfied with a draw – that was clear from the outset. El Madrigal got behind its side in yellow, and we felt that Villarreal might nick it.
But the deepest cut was still to come. Late on, Joan Oriol pushed forward, and the Elche wide player got behind him. With no support in attack and Oriol only a half-step behind, our left back nevertheless reached out and grabbed. Seemingly a harmless free kick – a long way out and near the touchline.
But we all know better. The Elche taker floated in a teasing ball, and the substitute Ángel rose high over a flat-footed Bruno to power past Juan Carlos. 2-3 in 85’. The air went out of El Madrigal; to make matters worse, Bruno was sent off for a reckless challenge.
FT Villarreal 2-3 Elche
In the end, not the desired result. But a great match at a vibrant El Madrigal. And the Elche fans celebrated their near-certain promotion with the gusto of a suffering fanbase. A scene that the Villarreal faithful hopes to repeat in a few short weeks.
Part 3 on the post-game to follow.