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Preview: Villarreal - Porto

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So, do you believe in milagros?  Diego López says that he does.  So does Juan Carlos Garrido.  And Nilmar has made his pledge too.  But really?  Villarreal can dream all they want, but unfortunately, Villarreal face one of the hottest team in all of Europe.  One loss in European and Liga competition.  Three draws.  That's it.  Right now they are riding a 13-match winning streak.  And before that one loss to Sevilla, And before that, 29 matches without a loss.  The only thing that has gone wrong for them all season is that they did not make it out of the second group stages of the League Cup, garnering a win, a draw, and their only other loss of the year.

And Villarreal is supposed to overcome a 4-goal deficit?  Dream big, friends.

Don't expect Porto to take things easy.  Andre Villas-Boas, the newly crowned prince of all things football, has promised to play in the same attacking 4-3-3 formation, saying that the club knows no other way to play.  And perhaps he was stretching it a bit (because I am sure there are plenty of Portuguese fans who do not support Porto), but he is encouraging his team by telling them that a win for Porto is a "win for the whole country."  Of course, as long as Falcao and Hulk are in the lineup, they could be playing in their sleep and still be dangerous.

Villarreal could arguably come out and play like they did in the first half of last Thursday's match.  For most of those 45 minutes, the team was sublime.  Ferocious, swarming defense broke up Porto's attack.  A pulsating offense pinged passes around the field with fluid movement and a silken touch.  The problem was, when given the opportunity at goal, the yellow club wasted and wasted again.  Villarreal could have easily found themselves on top by 3 goals by halftime, but did not have the finishing touch that was needed.  And the club did not recognize it, but they probably lost the entire semi-final by not being as lethal during those blissful 45 minutes.  We all know what happened on the other side of the break, so there is no good reason to go any further into it other than to say that Villarreal will long remember that half as one of the most disappointing 45 minutes in club history.

So, the reality is that the semi-finals are a lost cause.  Villarreal can be proud of advancing to this point, though, having taken care of some excellent competition - including quite a few teams that they can expect to come up against next season, assuming disaster doesn't strike, the hull isn't breached, and the Yellow Submarine hold on to 4th place and begin to fight again for the Champions League.

Villarreal can still take a lot out of the match.  The return of Marcos Senna is huge.  If he is used appropriately next year, and has not lost too much during these few months off, he can still be a guiding force for Villarreal as the club treks its way through the Champions League.  While he surely will not play 90 minutes, he will see pitch time, and his performance can give the club an idea of what he still has in the tank, and whether renewing his expiring contract will be worth the investment.

The club can also save face and prepare itself for next season.  Villarreal have had some ugly losses of late, and since January have not done themselves many favors in terms of impressing the masses.  A 3-0 loss to Sevilla.  3-1 loss to Atletico.  5-0 loss to Valencia.  5-1 loss to Porto.  Add those to some poor performances against low-level competition, and questions get raised about Villarreal's true ambitions.  Alongside those questions, expectations for the players on the squad drop off.  The "big" clubs come swooping in for star players.  And a promising 2011-12 campaign can become a lost cause before the season begins.  Not to be overdramatic (although that chain of events probably is), but a good performance on Thursday can go a long way in terms of allowing Villarreal to bow out of the competition with heads held high, rather than wondering who they really are.

Villarreal's squad for the match:

Keepers: Diego López and Juan Carlos.
Defenders: Mario, Cicinho, Mateo Musacchio, Carlos Marchena, Joan Capdevila and Joan Oriol.
Midfielders: Borja Valero, Marcos Senna, Bruno, Matilla, Santi Cazorla, Ruben Cani and Mubarak Wakaso.
Forwards: Marco Ruben, Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi.

Villarreal will welcome Senna's addition to central midfield, which had grown very sparse as of late.  The club shouldn't expect to need him early, though, as Garrido plans to attack with three up top, in a 4-3-3.  A three-man midfield, though, will put a lot of pressure on a back four that is thin and woefully slow considering the competition.  Were injuries and an unfortunate suspension not involved, Villarreal would probably be starting Gonzalo at central defense, Ángel López at right back, and José Manuel Catalá on the left.  But none of them are options, so Mario, Marchena, and Capdevila will be in the mix in the back.

My lineup:

Diego López
Mario - Musacchio - Marchena - Capdevila
Borja - Bruno - Cazorla
Nilmar - Ruben - Rossi

I think Villarreal will hand Porto their third loss of the season in all competitions, but it will surely not be easy.  Villarreal might even take a 3-1 victory for their efforts.  But unless they score a couple of early goals, we are all better off tempering our expectations and appreciating what the club has done to this point than demanding victory.