Villarreal traveled north to Barcelona on Sunday to play the city's second team and could not have started the match with better news than what they saw on the scoreboard: Osasuna 1-0 Real Madrid. The window of opportunity was gaping, and they had an obligation to crash through it. There won't be many more chances like this throughout the season.
Villarreal were put a bit on the back foot early, but did not look lost, more merely biding their time as the match began. Villarreal fans were surely happy to see Diego López come out strongly on three minutes to handle a dangerous cross, and otherwise for the first few minutes, the match was a fast-paced back-and-forth, with some good passes, but the defenses coming up solid in each side’s final third.
In the 6th minute, Villarreal had its collective head in its hands, as somehow off a beautiful headed pass following a corner, Gonzalo, from inside the Espanyol keeper’s six-yard box, managed to shoot directly over the goal. That was the type of ball that every grade schooler in the world would probably put at least on target- it takes a pro to miss those sometimes!
For those watching the change at right back following Ángel's season-ending injury, Mario made a statement early in the match. Every time the ball came into the final third on his side of the field, he was there with a quick step to break up the action and win possession. Garrido, hopefully, was taking notes.
Villarreal were given a golden opportunity in the 14th minute when Duscher, the man with perhaps the worst haircut in the world, brutally took Santi down from behind on a break from Villarreal. The free kick from 25 yards was not productive, though, and Villarreal continued to feel some early frustration.
For most of the first half, Espanyol seemed to always have a couple of defenders on top of Rossi when he saw the ball, and he was definitively shut down for the beginning minutes of the match. His first real chance of the match came on 19 minutes, after some very high pressure from Villarreal’s attacking force led to a steal from Cani and a mess in front of goal, eventually sent out for a corner.
In the 20th, all hell had broken loose, as Marco Ruben was barreled down in the box, and not 10 seconds later, Sergio García was sent clear on the other end, only to use his reputed lead foot rather than any skill to allow Diego López the opportunity to take the ball away in a one-on-one confrontation.
The teams were making an art of frustrating those on the outside of the pitch's dimensions. Both teams seemed to be spending most of their energy trying to make the perfect pass, rather than the simple pass, and the chances, although admittedly not the style, suffered for it. The match was full of flair, and the fast pace of the action was not allowing anyone to take a breath. In the 25th minute, Villarreal found themselves asked a serious question, when a counter led to the best bit of skill Sergio García has ever shown, but the only result was that he hit the post. Surely that opened the team’s eyes to the danger they were facing.
Javi Márquez, the Espanyol player with the second-worst haircut on the squad, sent a blazing shot over the bar in the 30th minute, and everyone in the stadium and at home was sitting there unable to believe that a goal had not yet been scored in the match. Espanyol were pushing further and further up and had managed to take back a little of the momentum, sustaining a period of pressure on the yellow back line. All they had to show for it at the time, though, were a number of offsides, some of them earned.
A laser of a shot from Rossi in the 32nd led to a corner, but what was perhaps more interesting was some insidious play-acting from Espanyol, as they attempted to get Rossi into hot water with the official. They were successful, as Rossi picked up a completely undeserved yellow card. Things only got worse for Villarreal, as off the corner Villarreal’s Ruben managed to hit the underside of the crossbar and still keep the ball out of the goal. It was beginning to feel like there was an invisible wall in front of both goals.
Diego López was called on to make his 3rd serious save of the match in the 38th, as Espanyol were peppering his area with shots early on. And then in the 41st, Sergio García continued to show more danger than I have ever seen out of him (although not much effectiveness), and it took more brilliance from Diego López to keep the Barcelona-based club off the scoresheet.
And then came the 45th minute. WOW. An absolutely unbelievable goal from Giuseppe Rossi on the counter, as he hit the underside of the top of the net from an impossible angle with the ball trailing away from him. It all started with a sliding tackle from Gonzalo in the back (wait- he left his feet? Unheard of!), and then it was one pass from Cazorla down the pitch to a streaking Rossi, who slowed the ball’s pace slightly with a touch, and then sliced it past an utterly helpless Kameni into the top of the goal. Simply superb.
And with Rossi’s goal, the whole tenor of the match changed immediately. As the first 45' wore down, it had clearly been Espanyol’s half, as could be expected in Cornellà-El Prat. Villarreal had shown up, but they were kept on the back foot for most of the half. The half was going to be nil-nil, everyone knew. But six seconds of brilliance from the Yellow Submarine changed all of it, and Villarreal found themselves breathless but up 0-1 in the locker room.
There was nothing suggesting, though, that the second half was going to be any slower. Villarreal were struggling in the back, with Marchena just back from a long-term injury. Garrido had to be thinking seriously about bringing on Musacchio to shore up the back line.
As is typical, Garrido did not make the quick switch at half and started the second half with the same lineup. Within the first couple of minutes, Mario again showed that Garrido made a good choice in picking him to start when he pirouetted in Espanyol’s box and blistered a shot on goal, only for Kameni’s save to fall to Marco Ruben at an unlucky angle. Villarreal were definitely starting the second half on the front foot.
The game sputtered on for a bit (both on the pitch, as well as the stream I was watching), and in the 60th minute, Espanyol made a couple of substitutions, taking out their defensive midfielders Márquez and Duscher, as they were desperate to change the tone and the scoreline.
Ruben was looking especially off throughout the night. Twice he missed truly golden opportunities, where merely getting the ball on target would have assured a goal. In the 70th, Villarreal looked dangerous, but it was his slow reaction that cost the Submarine the opportunity. Unfortunately, Villarreal had little in terms of options on the bench- although Nilmar was there, in reality he was probably not ready to come on for more than a few minutes.
Espanyol finished off their substitutions in the 71st, pulling Sergio García for Dátolo, a striker that might actually do something. Villarreal answered the change in the 72nd, going with a slightly more defensive Cicinho for Cani, who looked pretty well-spent.
In the 75th, three points flashed before Villarreal’s eyes as a dangerous cross into the box found the yellow central defenders wanting. Luckily, the shot went wide and high, and the 0-1 scoreline continued to hold. Villarreal again played with fire in the 79th, as Capdevila was caught slow and tugged the Espanyol attacker back at the edge of the box to gain the advantage; the infraction was not seen, though, and again the club in yellow continued to squeak by.
Villarreal were feeling more and more desperate for a second as the half progressed, but were having few opportunities in the Espanyol half of the pitch. They pushed forward, and again and again Espanyol were taking advantage, stretching the yellow defense closer to the breaking point. As the minutes dropped away, and the clock reached slowly towards 90', the club finally stopped sending more than two or three forward at a time, doing their best to keep most of the team back in their defensive shape.
In the 90th, Garrido made his second substitution, bringing on defender Joan Oriol for Santi Cazorla. A minute later, Musacchio came on for Rossi. The defensive changeover was complete, and all that was left was the waiting and hoping. And that hoping almost wasn’t enough, as on the death, a tremendous shot from 25 yards flew past Diego López’s post.
But then the whistle, and three points were in hand! I definitely did not believe after watching the first 45 minutes that this is the type of match to end with a 0-1 final. Both teams nearly burned the pitch down in the first half. The second half continued to produce danger on both ends, but the two sides seemed a little more tame after the break. Espanyol gave up a little of its attacking shape with its two early substitutions, and Villarreal took a slightly more defensive approach. As a result, both keepers had it somewhat easier in the second half. Of course, it wasn’t a stroll in the park for either of them.
All in all, Villarreal have to be floating all the way back down the coast on their way home tonight. After racking up the most points ever for a third-placed side in La Liga at the break, they haven’t slowed in the second half of the season and have garnered six of six to start the homestretch. Couple today’s win, which added to the cushion on 5th-place Espanyol, with Real Madrid’s shocking 1-0 defeat at Osasuna, and suddenly this might actually be a race for second rather than third. Villarreal find themselves a mere six points off Madrid’s pace and will welcome the club to El Madrigal on this side of the season’s midway point. Villarreal continue to impress in their best-ever showing, and I for one couldn’t be more thrilled.