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Villarreal scrapes Bilbao win, consolidates CL place

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After a fine performance on Thursday, Villarreal faced a dangerous Athletic Bilbao club hoping to narrow the gap to the Yellow Submarine. Our nemesis Toquero was unavailable, but Caparrós included both Llorente and Muniain in his starting XI, hoping to take the game to Villarreal.

Manager Garrido decided to keep the same lineup as on Thursday. Catalá was preferred to Capdevila at left back, while Marchena and Bruno were the doble pivotes, flanked by Cazorla and Borja. Cani remained on the bench, while Nilmar's late scratch meant that Ruben partnered Rossi in attack.

Highlights from RuTube-- more analysis below the fold:

Typically games between these two sides at Estadio San Mamés have been full of goals (26 in 11 matches), but the first half broke that mold-- no goals and hardly any chances. The best chance of the half came from Athletic's first corner, but Llorente put a free header wide of the mark. Llorente created a second opportunity by himself, taking the ball past the Villarreal defense but unable to control it with only Diego López to beat, and the chance was lost.

Villarreal's chances were even fewer. Rossi blazed a free kick over from a tight angle, and Ruben shouted for a penalty which would have been very soft, had it been given. Bilbao was content to punt the ball up to midfield, chest it down, and start an attack, but not much was created. Villarreal tried to pass the ball through midfield but found things clogged. Rossi dropped into his own end much of the time to get the ball, and while the Submarine had a couple of periods of possession in the Bilbao half, they did not trouble Iraizoz in goal. And the physical style of Athletic too often resulted in fouls not spotted by the referee-- Borja, in particular, seemed to suffer foul after foul with no whistle.

HT: 0-0

In the second half, Villarreal began brightly, with Santi shooting wide from the top of the box-- Muniain doing the same at the other end-- and Ruben and Rossi finding space and winning free kicks, as a result. The game was more open, and a goal now looked possible-- and it was el conjunt groguet that got it.

Rossi won a free kick on the left wing, Borja placed a perfect ball into the area, and Ruben split two defenders and headed the ball powerfully into the net. Iraizoz got a hand on it, but no matter. 0-1 to Villarreal in the 59th minute, and though Llorente went close twice at the other end--a left-footed shot wide, then a header-- it could have been 0-2 five minutes later, when a right-footed volley from Rossi was brilliantly kept out by Iraizoz.

Athletic continued to play rugby in the midfield (they were whistled for 22 fouls on the evening and committed far more), but their tactics essentially were to play the ball into the area and hope that something good happened. Llorente frequently was offside-- whistled 14 times against the Basques-- but he also forced a fine save from Diego López, as did the substitute Susaeta. And in the penultimate minute of injury time, López made a great stop on Javi Martínez to preserve all 3 points.

FT: 0-1

There were some nervy moments, but the Villarreal defense, bolstered by Cani, Kiko, and Wakaso by the end, hung tough. Special mention to Marchena, who partnered well with Bruno in central midfield. Sr. Garrido, you may have found the central midfielder that you were looking for (right under your nose)!

The man of the match had to be Diego López: 6 saves and confident goalkeeping throughout. But it was a fine performance by the entire squad against a tough and physical opponent. With the victory, Villarreal joins Valencia on 54 points and extends its lead on 5th-place Espanyol to 11 points (12 with the tiebreak) with only 9 games remaining. Endavant Villarreal!