Villarreal make a long, long trip to Galicia to take on the Sky Blues of Celta Vigo on Sunday. It's at least a 10-hour bus ride, the longest trip we'll have this season in the league. (though the team flew there)
Our opponents--some history
1923 must have been a pretty good year to start a football team in Spain. Villarreal was formed on March 10, and on August 10, 1923, Celta Vigo was created, hired former Sunderland right-half Francis Cuggy to manage them, and promptly won the Galician Championship. Let's fast forward a bit....
Well before Villarreal, Celta Vigo had a run of outstanding seasons in La Liga, finishing between fourth and seventh every year between 1997 and 2003, and reaching the UEFA Cup quarterfinals three times in that period and playing in a Copa del Rey final.
And, just like Villarreal eight years later, the end came suddenly. Celta qualified for the Champions League in 2002-03, and actually did well in it in 2003-04, reaching the last 16 (well, okay, that part wasn't like us) and losing to Arsenal (well, that's familiar). But domestically, their form was appalling, and they were ultimately relegated in 19th place.
But, just as we did last year, they bounced back with a second-place finish in the Segunda, had a great season in their Primera return in 2005-06, finishing 6th, but were relegated again in 2006-07. And then it took them five years to return to the Primera again, which they did in 2011-12.
If the trajectory on the pitch from the late 1990's to 2005 parallels our experiences, behind the scenes things were very different. Those great "EuroCelta" teams were built around expensive signings, and with relegation the team was losing large sums of money. In June 2007 Celta nearly went bust, and huge cuts in the playing budget and staff were made to keep going. Out went the expensive foreign players, in came players developed in their cantera, supplemented with astute cheap signings. It didn't always work--Celta nearly fell to Segunda B a couple of times--but now has borne fruit.
This year's Celta team
Celta's big star, developed in their system, was Iago Aspas, sold to Liverpool for €10m this summer. With his departure, Celta have reinvented themselves this year as something of a Galician Barcelona--coach Luis Enrique, who coached Barcelona B, has brought in ex-La Masia boys such as Andreu Fontas (€1m), Nolito (€2.6m, from Benfica), and Rafael Alcantara "Rafinha" (on loan).
Add to that some homegrown players (Borja Oubina, David Rodriguez, Alex Lopez) and a few other astute signings (the main one being striker Charles from Almeria--for only €1m!!), plus Jon Aurtenetxe on loan, and Celta have the makings of a very watchable team.
And I haven't even told you about their biggest potential star, a fellow you may hear a lot about in the next year or two: Santi Mina. This article published last May describes him pretty well--an out-an-out striker, aged 17, current member of Spain's U-19 squad, who can score like nobody's business (27 goals in 17 matches at the Juvenil level--better than Messi, apparently).
He came on as a substitute in Celta's last match against Athletic Club in the new San Mamés and promptly scored as clinical a headed goal off a free kick as you will ever see for his first Primera goal (he played 30 minutes in a match for Celta last year, so it wasn't actually his Primera debut).
Against Athletic, Celta were not terribly successful at playing their short possession game, but they were able to show their speed in rapid counterattacks, with Nolito, Rafina and Fernandez leading the way. Better finishing from Charles (who missed a penalty in the first half) might have given Celta three points, but it wasn't to be.
And that game in some ways is a microcosm of how it's gone for Celta so far. They have taken the lead in every game they've played, but they've only been able to win one of them. They're going to have to outscore the other side, because their defense is average at best, and apart from Mina, their bench is pretty weak. Nonetheless, I have a feeling they will do reasonably well this season, and to be honest I think Villarreal will probably be happy to face them now rather than in another month when their predominately young squad is more used to playing together under Enrique.
Villarreal: For the Yellow Submarine, it's been a glorious start, but as we've said on several podcasts, while playing the big guys toe-to-toe is great, ultimately what determines success in La Liga Justa is how you do against the teams you feel you should beat, or at least gain a draw against on the road. We've won two road matches; Celta is a better team than Almeria and Osasuna, I feel.
One advantage Villarreal has is depth, which could well come into play here given Celta's penchant for giving up goals once they're ahead. And knowing there's another match in midweek, I expect the benches will be utilized for rest reasons, as well as tactics, for both teams.
Marcelino has been happy with our play the last two matches (who wouldn't be?) and his focus this week has been on keeping focus and continuing to play well. It's interesting that yesterday and today Villarreal trained away from home, at the Marina d'Or in Oropesa (you can see some video of yesterday's routine here).
I'm not expecting any major changes from the XI that started last match, though I think we could see Uche or Perbet partnering Gio up front this time. I'd personally like to see Paulista get a few minutes in the back, too, but we'll see.
History between these two sides:
There's not a lot, but it's safe to say the Balaidos has not been a ground we've enjoyed. The two teams first met in 1998-99, Villarreal's first season in the Primera, and we went down 4-1 in Vigo. After that, Celta won five straight times; we finally picked up a point there in the 2006-07 season, with a 1-1 draw. That's the last time the two teams met in La Liga, but there is the small matter of the Copa del Rey...
In January 2010 the two teams met in the Copa Round of 16. Villarreal drew 1-1 in Vigo, and in the return leg in El Madrigal set up as defensive a team as you could imagine, playing for a 0-0 draw. In injury time, referee Borbalan "invented" a penalty when Angel tripped Botelho (outside the area), Trashorras converted, and we were out. One of the last matches Valverde coached with us.
From that game, Bruno and Cani remain for us; Hugo Mallo, Jonathan Vila, and goalkeeper Yoel for Celta.
Keys to the game:
Although they line up in a 4-3-3 rather than our 4-4-2, Celta's game is a lot like ours, built on steals, speed, and quickness rather than possession, strength and height. We usually do pretty well against teams like this.
Both teams need to possess the ball intelligently--not necessarily dominate possession, but avoid bad giveaways or poor passes in the first half of the pitch, because they'll lead to quick chances for the opponents.
For Celta, they need to get on top early--they are not good at holding leads, and need to play from in front. If Rafinha and Alex López can get the ball to Charles et al. on some quick counters, I think they can open up our defense, especially since Jaume Costa and Mario like to play so far upfield.
For Villarreal, break up counterattacks before they start, and look for the through ball--Celta has been open to it. Find a way to maximize the talent differential--Gio, Cani, and Bruno are better and more experienced than anyone in their lineup, and that talent advantage needs to be turned into goals. And some height in attack might not be amiss--maybe Perbet can get involved in some set-piece situations to our advantage?
In the podcast, I predicted a 2-1 win for the Submarine, but after watching Celta against Athletic I agree with Ravi--there are probably more than three goals in this. So, 3-2 Villarreal. It's a tough ask, I admit--but why not?