The Villarreal players are enjoying two consecutive off-days for the first time in ages, so it seems like a good time to take stock of the league picture, especially as we have a big away game this weekend.
The numbers are impressive: Villarreal's season to date has been its best ever in La Liga, with 42 points from 20 matches, an all-time record for a third place team at this point. Third place is no fluke, as the team is third in the league in goals scored, and has given up the third fewest goals. In spite of significant injuries to Senna, Nilmar, Marchena, and now Ángel, the Submarine has made it through an exhausting period to stay on course in the league, though the manner of our Copa del Rey elimination still rankles after playing so well against Valencia.
Going into the season Yellow Submarine watchers had several key questions, I'll try to answer them so far...
(1) How have the new players worked out?
To start with the veterans first, Marchena has been excellent in defense; we have really missed him the last month. Borja Valero has been very strong in midfield, though he is less a replacement for Senna than some might have hoped, more of an attacking midfielder than a ballwinner. (It's interesting that a lot of the sites that follow La Liga generally, such as forzafutbol, love Borja and have him on their "best of the first-half" team; people on this site have been more critical).
As for the cantera callups, the results have been mixed though generally positive. Mussachio has seen the most activity; he's very young so will make some mistakes, but overall he's done decently. Catala has seen some time in central defense as well and has not been as impressive; Joan Oriol and Mario have shown promise in limited action.
Juan Carlos played well in the Copa del Rey (except for the first half against Valencia), but unfortunately was injured against Sevilla and is out for a while. Kiko and Cristobal have not featured at all, and may be loaned out to get more experience. Matilla has been an interesting story; many of us expected to see him get lots of minutes but he has only recently begun to see significant action. He's looked okay so far, but given our quality in midfield he's finding it hard to break in.
Marco Ruben has of course seen significant playing time as a result of Nilmar's injury, and has scored two goals in the league (as many as Benzema!), including a beauty against Real Madrid. He's done very well in seizing his opportunity. The only disappointment has been the cantera player we were all hoping would emerge as a real star, Jefferson Montero. He's only 20, so perhaps we were expecting too much too soon, but at the moment he finds himself in Garrido's doghouse, not even making the bench against Real Sociedad.
As for Jozy Altidore, he has mostly played in the Copa del Rey, and has had some good moments but nothing particularly to indicate he'll get significant playing time in the second half of the season. He may well be loaned to another La Liga side (Sporting and Depor have been mentioned).
(2) How have the veterans performed?
In a word, well. In some cases, very well. Rossi and Nilmar have developed an excellent attacking partnership, and Santi Cazorla has made a strong return from injury. Being able to play one game a week will help him, too; he looked very refreshed against Real Sociedad and had one of his best games of the season. And then there has been Gonzalo: it looked all summer as if he would not be part of the team this year, but he has been a rock at the back, especially important with Marchena out.
Cani has upped his game this year; when the season started many were wondering if we would show up in big games, and he has; in fact he's played quite well throughout the season. The star of our midfield for me has been Bruno; with Senna's injury he's really had more pressure on him to break up opposition attacks, and he has been a rock in midfield. No wonder that he received his first callup to the Spanish national squad. As for Joan Capdevila, he is Capdevila--just pencil him in the lineup, sit back and enjoy him doing his thing. If he does indeed decide to try the MLS after a few more years with Villarreal, I'd certainly pay to see him.
(3) Are we going to be able to hold on to our best players given the current economic climate?
As we all know, the revenue disparities in Spanish football are huge. Historically smaller teams in La Liga may enjoy a good season or two, but find it hard to hang around in the European places as they end up selling on their best players.
But the signs for Villarreal are good here, with Rossi's decision to sign a new contract running until 2016 a key one. The renewals of Cani and Capdevila remove most of the question marks--only Senna's contract renewal remains unresolved. I have to believe that we will add some players to improve our depth so we can compete effectively in the midweek knockout competitions, especially if injuries it at key times as they did this year, but overall the team quality is at a high level.
And let's not forget that coach Garrido began this season needing to prove himself, and he's certainly done that. He's Villarreal through and through, has signed a three-year deal, and clearly relishes the competition against the big boys.
So...what are the keys to success in the second half of the season?
(1) tightening up our defense, which though statistically third in the league has started to leak goals, especially from set-pieces, of late. We don't have a lot of height in our defense so accurate positioning is key.
(2) Our attacking football has generally been excellent, but we need to develop a killer instinct to finish teams off. I'm not arguing for arrogance, but we need to show a stronger confidence we will win once we take the lead and then kill the game off so that there is no question of the three points.
(3) As I've written previously, Villarreal's schedule is more difficult in the second half of the season, because we play the teams currently in positions 4-9 in the league table on the road and our home matches include Barcelona and Real Madrid. Our only three road wins so far are against teams in the bottom five. Is this simply an artifact of our schedule, or is that a true reflection of our road form? That's a key question as we look forward to the remainder of the season.
(4) the things we can't control: injuries, referees' decisions. Let's not even go there.
Unfortunately, although Villarreal has the best third-place record at this point of the season, Valencia is breathing down our necks, with the best fourth-place record ever, and Espanyol is right behind them. Here's a quick take on the teams chasing us:
Valencia has come away better than most expected after selling Villa and Silva; I seldom find them a very exciting team to watch, but I expect they will continue to be our main competition for a third-place finish, especially if Juan Mata continues scoring goals from offside positions. Seriously, Mata has performed well, and Los Che do have some depth to their attack; Aduriz may miss his share of opportunities, but he also gets himself in position to put away a bunch, and recently Emery has taken to bringing Soldado off the bench which has been very effective. Now they've added Jonas from Brazil, who seems a real bargain but might take time to fit in. We'll see how it works out.
Espanyol continues to surprise; they look like they will hang tough until the end, but keep in mind they have three tough home matches in May (Athletic, Sevilla and Valencia) plus a visit to the Camp Nou. They have a fairly thin squad (and don't have a lot of money to splash on reinforcements) so how much they have left in the tank for those May matches may determine their fate. They don't have any Copa or European matches to contend with, which should help them.
As for the rest, I can't see Athletic Bilbao going on the sort of consistent run they need to challenge the top four. Llorente and Muniaín are great to watch, but overall they have too many okay players, not enough really good ones. Sevilla could still finish in the top five or six in spite of their sometimes-erratic defense. Negredo, Kanouté and Fabiano with Navas is a pretty awesome attack, but though they can lift their play for a game or two consistency remains a problem. Still, their remaining schedule doesn't look too bad: they play Barca, Madrid and Villarreal at home, Valencia and Espanyol away. I expected some sort of bounce from Atlético Madrid after winning the Europa League, but I forgot--they are Atléti. Against Madrid in the Copa and Sporting on the weekend, this team looked like they've thrown in the towel for this season, and rumors are both Forlán and Kün Aguero wil be gone before next fall.
The other teams are just too far behind at this point to be serious candidates for the Champions League spots. I suppose a strong run from Getafe or Mallorca could take them into fifth or sixth, but it's seems unlikely given their form so far and the number of teams they have to overtake to get there.
The goal: Champions League football next season at El Madrigal. We are halfway there; we can do it!! Endavant Villarreal!!