Hard to realize this was only a match in the Europa League round of 32. Huge crowd at El Madrigal, with thousands of visiting Italian fans supporting their club. A pity UEFA decided the 13,000 balloons idea wasn’t okay. And GolTV showed the match live in the US. Those of us trying to follow Villarreal’s Europa League adventure appreciated the marquee billing, even if the New York Times didn’t. Nilmar called this the most important match of the year.
For a while, it looked like the match wouldn’t live up to the buildup. With no away goals to protect or overcome, both teams seemed a little uncertain as to how much to push forward versus defend. Napoli started with Cavani on the bench, clearly hoping they could save him for the AC Milan game on Monday, and they nearly took the lead early, when Lavezzi was played in but hurriedly shot wide. At the other end, Rossi and Nilmar weren’t seeing much of the ball while, as in the first game, the Villarreal defense was having problems with the pace of the Napoli front line.
In the 18th minute, Villarreal conceded a corner. I confess I breathed a sigh of relief when it was taken short, given how often we’ve conceded from corners this year– but then a ball was whipped in from the byline, and Hamšík put a piledriver of a low header into the goal. It appeared that he had been in an offside position during the buildup, and the Villarreal supporters were incredulous, but the goal was allowed. Hamšík slid on his knees toward the Napoli fans by the corner flag, and there were scary scenes as the small fence between the seats and the fans gave way, and several of the Napoli supporters spilled onto the pitch and each other. For those of us old enough to remember severe crowd incidents involving crushed barriers that marred football matches, it was a frightening event, but fortunately no one appeared to be seriously injured, and the game soon was able to resume. Nevertheless, Villarreal CF can expect a UEFA investigation and a fine for the inadequate nature of the barrier.
The tie could have been over ten minutes later, when Lavezzi was put through with only Diego López to beat, but the keeper bravely cut down the angle and made a key block. But slowly Villarreal began to haul itself back up the mountain. Borja already had put shots wide to either side, and he and Santi Cazorla, aided by Cani, were beginning to control play in midfield. Then in the 40th minute, El Madrigal erupted. Capdevila’s throw-in reached Borja, who split two Napoli defenders with a perfect pass to Nilmar, and the Brazilian coolly slotted the ball home past De Sanctis.
And Villarreal continued to press: a cross from Borja was blocked; Villarreal won a corner but did nothing with it. Napoli began an attack, but Yebda was dispossessed by Nilmar in the middle of the pitch, who found Borja, who passed to Rossi on the left. His shot was deflected by the luckless Zúñiga up and over De Sanctis and high into the net, and Villarreal was ahead. Lucky perhaps, but given some of the luck we’ve had lately, perhaps no more than was deserved.
The Napoli players were upset that no foul had been whistled on the play and protested as the teams left the pitch. Within seven minutes of the restart, Cavani had been introduced for Sosa by Mazzarri, as Napoli pressed for the goal that would put them through to the next round. Napoli had chances, certainly: Cavani flashed a header over the bar from a corner; in the 66th minute, he crashed a hard shot off the far post; and in the 72nd minute, he put a half-bicycle kick just over the bar.
But Villarreal had its chances too. Santi Cazorla had missed a golden opportunity to finish off the tie early in the half, blasting over when he had time to settle the ball with a first touch and pick his spot. Cani shot narrowly over the bar from a tight angle when it might have been easier to pass to Nilmar flying into the box. Most controversially, with 15 minutes left, Nilmar was clipped in the box by Dossena, but the Turkish referee ignored the contact and awarded Nilmar a yellow card for diving. It seemed a harsh yellow, given that there clearly was contact, but Nilmar hasn’t gotten many breaks from the refs of late.
Villarreal was looking to score while trying not to push too far forward and get caught at the back, and with less than 15 minutes to go, having just seen Napoli threaten from a corner and a counterattack, when Lavezzi got past Gonzalo but fortunately couldn’t get his shot on target, Garrido brought on Catalá for Santi. Then followed Marcos Gullón (his first A team action!) for Cani, and Ruben came on for Rossi as the game wound down. Napoli had chances, or at least lots of corners, but in the end, though they huffed and puffed, the yellow defense stayed firm.
Villarreal’s reward for prevailing today is a tie against Bayer Leverkusen, who is currently second in the German Bundesliga. It won’t be easy, but then today wasn’t either. Napoli is an attractive team to watch, and they played well today. On another day, the outcome might have been different. Good luck to them in Serie A.
Villarreal put together one of its best performances in a while, and they needed every bit of it to prevail today. Musacchio was unsteady early on but grew in confidence as the game continued, and Borja was especially excellent, though most everyone on the pitch had a good game for both sides. But let’s not forget that huge save from Diego López.
And so there is only one Spanish side left in the Europa League. Endavant Villarreal!!