Make no mistake about it, this one hurts. After Valencia's draw yesterday, Villarreal had an opportunity to go third in the table with 3 points today, but it was not to be, as last-placed Málaga CF escaped with a totally undeserved 1-1 draw today in the sunshine at El Madrigal.
Juan Carlos Garrido, perhaps in part because of concerns about fitness, but also aware of Villarreal's failure to score goals of late, went with a change in formation--an attacking 4-3-3, with Cani and Borja in midfield on either side of Bruno, and Ruben, Nilmar, and Rossi all in the lineup. As for the visitors, they lined up in a 4-2-3-1, with Rondón up top.
When these two teams met earlier in the season on the southern coast, it was 3-2 to Villarreal by halftime, a player had been ejected, and numerous yellow cards handed out. Frankly, Málaga had impressed me as a side that surely would move up the table as the season went along.
Well, that has not happened, and with due respect to coach Pellegrini, his team deserves to be propping up the table; they weren't impressive at all. Their back four has been strengthened somewhat with Demichelis, but the real stories today were the persistent fouling of Eliseu (often not called) and the play of Caballero in goal. In attack, Rondón was clearly the danger man, but in the first half, he was able to get around Gonzalo once and strike a low shot across goal; otherwise, he was controlled well.
As for Villarreal, the passing game we've missed of late was more in evidence. Nilmar in particular was very active, just being crowded out of dangerous shooting positions on a couple of occasions, and Caballero closing down the angle and making a nice save on him. Rossi was working hard as well and was involved in numerous build-ups, but only one of them--a pass from Cani to Rossi, his shot saved, Ruben on hand to knock the rebound home in the 36th minute--resulted in a goal. Still, given that the Villarreal defense hardly had been troubled and liberal use of the offside trap had neutralized Rondón, a 1-0 lead at the break was no less than Villarreal deserved, and a second goal would surely kill off the tie.
The first 25 minutes of the second half were more of the same. Nilmar went close again, and Málaga hardly threatened. However, the attacking edge of the 4-3-3 was starting to be blunted, and Garrido brought on Santi Cazorla for Ruben in the 69th minute. Within 10 minutes, Santi had hit the crossbar from a free kick, and then Caballero had saved from his follow-up. But things still looked comfortable, as Villarreal went into the last 10 minutes up 1-0.
Then came the minute of play Villarreal fans will be talking about for a while. Rossi released Nilmar, who controlled the ball and ran into the area with speed, but was shoulder-checked off the ball by the sprinting Eliseu, beaten for pace yet again. Surely it was a penalty, but referee Fernando Teixeira Vitienes, as he frequently had done, ignored the challenge, waving play on as the fans whistled and Nilmar picked himself up. Eliseu controlled the ball and pushed the ball forward. For reasons unknown to anyone except possibly themselves, Capdevila and Marchena, instead of trying to cut out the ball further up the pitch, let Rondón go. Gonzalo tried to pick him up and block his pass across the area to Seba Fernández but failed, and the ball comprehensively was swept into the net for an equalizer.
In the remaining 10 minutes, the Submarine huffed and puffed a bit but never really threatened, and the teams exchanged shirts as the fans whistled their disapproval of the referee. Yes, the disallowed penalty on Nilmar left a bad taste, especially given the aftermath. And I'm sure Garrido will be asking himself if he should at least have brought on Musacchio (who had warmed up early in the half) for Marchena so that we had a bit more pace at the back. But the real problem was the failure to translate obvious superiority into goals.
Cani, Bruno, and Borja (and later Santi Cazorla) played well in midfield. Nilmar was quick and caused trouble for the defense all day, but could not convert. Rossi showed some tremendous skills in setting up plays; he could've had two or three assists today with a little luck, especially in the first half when passes to Ruben just didn't quite click or a last-ditch intervention by a Málaga player cleared the danger. Ruben scored the goal, yes, but he needs to work on his positioning--he gets called for a lot of fouls--not all of them deserved, perhaps, but you'll get called for them when the defender is in a stronger position than you are. Experience tells.
Defensively, until the moment of madness that cost us two points, everything had gone well. Mario, especially, was outstanding. This was not a case of being outplayed by a superior opponent (as against Levante). Nor was it a case of playing down to the opposition with a lack of intensity (the Depor debacle). That's the good news.
The bad news is that two points were thrown away at home, and we just couldn't finish off the bottom team in the league. It's fine to complain about the penalty that wasn't given, but if the match had ended 1-0, that would've been a footnote.
Málaga's keeper made some key stops, but even so, against a team that has given up more than two goals per game on average, we should've scored two or three goals to put this one away early. That's what hurts. A 1-0 lead always leaves you vulnerable to one counterattack or one defensive mistake, and that's exactly what happened.
Bruno (who was his usual outstanding self) will miss the Racing Santander matchup after picking up a yellow card. Other than that, at least we didn't suffer any more injuries. We're still fourth, 8 points ahead of fifth-place Athletic, Espanyol's challenge seems to be faltering, and Aduriz will be out a month for Valencia, which could be a key loss for them. But we need to regain our scoring punch and our winning touch. Otherwise, the Champions League will be a distant dream.