After the draw for the Europa League groups the bookies made Villarreal comfortable favorites to progress to the knockout stages, but it hasn't worked that way. Two road defeats have left no margin of error; a Zagreb win and PAOK win at Bruges in the other Wednesday game would eliminate the Yellow Submarine before the last round of matches, but even a draw would severely hamper Villarreal's chances to progress. It is truly a must-win match.
Villarreal showed good form with a three-goal win on the road against Zaragoza on Saturday, but Dinamo Zagreb are flying high at the top of their league. Ten wins in a row, scoring 24 goals and conceding only one, is impressive, even against weak competition. And having defeated Villarreal in Zagreb already, the Modri should be confident, well aware a draw or a win at El Madrigal would greatly increase their chances of progression.
News from the Dinamo camp centers around a disciplinary crisis -- the coach first suspended, later fined several of the Blues, including leading scorer Sammir, for frequent visits to Zagreb nightspots in the wee hours! The suspensions have been lifted, but Dinamo will be without their highly rated young defender Vrsaljko, who picked up his second yellow card in the last Europa League round.
Without him, key men will be their defenders, especially the veterans Cufré, Tonel, and ex-Liverpool man Bišcan as well as young keeper Ivan Kelava, who played well in the first match between the two teams. Sammir, Rukavina and Buciraj are the biggest attacking threats, and will try to use their speed to create chances on the counter.
Juan Carlos Garrido put out a young, experimental lineup when these two teams met in mid-September, and it flopped. Now that we're into the meat of the Copa, Europa League, and Primera schedule he appears to have settled on a core lineup. Villarreal approaches this game in a more determined frame of mind, and with a more experienced squad, than was the case with the first leg in September, as reflected in the call for this match:
Goalkeepers: Diego López, Juan Carlos.
Defenders: Ángel, Mario, Marchena, Musacchio, Gonzalo, Catalá.
Midfielders: Bruno, Borja Valero, Senna, Cazorla, Jefferson Montero, Cani.
Strikers: Altidore, Rossi, Nilmar, Marco Ruben.
Joan Capdevila is still recovering from his ankle injury, and his replacement, Joan Oriol, injured a leg against Zaragoza and has also been ruled unavailable. I expect Catalá will start, though Bruno could shift to left back; otherwise, he'll partner Borja Valero, Cani and Santi Cazorla in midfield. Probably Mussachio, Marchena and Ángel make up the rest of the back four, and Diego López will be in goal.
A key decision for Garrido is whether to start Nilmar. He scored against Barca and Zaragoza, but has had some knee soreness of late; Marco Ruben had some good minutes against Zaragoza and could get the nod to partner Rossi if Nilmar doesn't. Jefferson Montero and Ruben (if he doesn't start) are likely to be the first two attacking options off the bench, while Marcos Senna, who played the full match on Saturday, could come in to shore up midfield if needed.
Group D is very tight, so goal differential among any teams tied on points at the end of the last round of matches could become very important, as could away goals. For all their success in Croatia, Dinamo have never qualified for the UEFA/Europa League knockout rounds, and they won't have their vociferous Bad Blue Boys to cheer them on in El Madrigal. Villarreal, meanwhile, have never gone out at the first hurdle in Europe. Joan Capdevila seems convinced Villarreal can qualify from this group and go a long way in this competition, and who am I to doubt a World Cup winner? I'll predict three points for the yellow team on a cold El Madrigal evening. ENDAVANT VILLARREAL!!