Villarreal concluded group play in the Europa League with a 2-1 victory over Club Brugge KV in Belgium to finish top of Group D. The weather may have been cold, but the action inside Bruges' Jan Breydel Stadium was entertaining throughout. Villarreal made three changes from the lineup that meekly capitulated to 10-man Getafe on Saturday: Mario Gaspar and Gonzalo came in to the defense in place of Angel and the injured Marchena, while Marco Ruben partnered Rossi up front. As for Club Brugge, they basically played a first-string lineup as well, though Stepovic, who scored their equalizing goal against PAOK in Greece, was on the bench.
Villarreal started brightly and could have had an early lead when Bruges keeper De Vlieger spilled a shot into the path of Joan Capdevila, but he could only hit the post before the rebound was parried away. As the game went on with end-to-end attacks Bruges came more into it, and in the 28th minute they grabbed a lead: Blondel's long-range shot was tipped onto the crossbar, but the rebound was put in by Kouemaha. He was perhaps marginally offside, but there were no protests.
Within a minute Villarreal threatened, with de Vlieger saving from Rossi, and a minute later Rossi equalized. Cani, who had an excellent game, turned defenders inside out to create space, passed wide to Capdevila, and his cross was forcefully headed home by Rossi. Shortly afterward, after Villarreal survived another Bruges attack, Rossi collected a pass from Santi Cazorla outside the Bruges penalty area, ran inside it and just as he was shaping to shoot Donk bundled him off the ball with a clumsy challenge. Again, no real argument with the referee's decision, and Rossi promptly dispatched the penalty--twice, actually, as the first time it was waved off for encroachment or an infringment, nobody seemed quite sure. At that point further goals seemed inevitable, but both teams went into the break with the score remaining 2-1 to Villarreal.
Amazingly enough, that's how it remained. Villarreal was the better team for the first fifteen minutes or so of the second half; Rossi had a chance for a hat-trick saved, Ruben had a couple of chances denied by de Vlieger, and Cani shot at the keeper when he could have done better. Gradually Bruges began to come into the game more, as they had in the first half, though to be fair the yellow defense generally dealt with the Bruges crosses and half-chances without great difficulty. Perisic was probably the best player for Bruges on the evening, and his shot from outside the box just missed the top corner, swerving and beating Lopez; all the Villarreal fans were delighted to see Perisic come off just after that!
Villarreal were content to counterattack, but possession and buildup didn't translate into many shots. The best opportunity for Bruges came from Kouemaha, who headed in a cross but was adjudged to be offside. He was well ahead of the defender playing him when the ball was crossed, but neither the referee nor the linesman saw that Gonzalo, who had gone sliding past the touchline in the buildup, was actually playing Kouemaha onside as he returned to the action. Well, maybe that made up for his marginal offside that wasn't called in the first half.
On the evening, I'd say Villarreal just deserved the three points, but no one could complain about the effort both sides put in. Villarreal played with far more passion, speed, and precision than they have recently in La Liga, especially on the road; Rossi, Cani, Capdevila, Senna, Mario, Gonzalo, and Bruno all stood out, and Santi Cazorla was far better than on Saturday. Mario in particular showed he might give Villarreal the attacking option down the right wing we've needed to complement Capdevila on the left. Also, Jozy Altidore came on late and provided some good minutes; the only real disappointment was Borja Valero, who just hasn't been the same since our trip to the Camp Nou and the loss to Barcelona. Still, he created some decent chances on attack, though he was too easily bypassed in the middle of the pitch and gave up the ball too easily.
As for Bruges, if I hadn't known their coach was under fire for their league performances, I wouldn't have believed it. They put a tremendous effort into a match that meant absolutely nothing to them as far as the Europa League was concerned. Kouemaha and Perisic particularly stood out but Vargas and Blondel also provided moments of quality. The Villarreal fans in the stadium were understandably happy with the outcome, but Bruges supporters take heart; your club played well and I'm sure will move up the table if you can duplicate tonight's effort.