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No miracle, but Villarreal exits Europa League with heads held high

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How do you like that, Vicente? Now take me to America!
How do you like that, Vicente? Now take me to America!

If ever a side can feel disappointed going out 7-4 on aggregate, it should be Villarreal. Tonight at El Madrigal, the Yellow Submarine defeated FC Porto 3-2 (Porto's first defeat in 15 matches, it should be noted), but it could have been so much more.

Manager Juan Carlos Garrido went with an attacking lineup: Diego López in goal; only three defenders at the back, with Mateo Musacchio flanked by Mario Gaspar and Bruno Soriano; Joan Capdevila, Rubén Cani, Santi Cazorla, and Javier Matilla in midfield; and Nilmar, Marco Ruben, and Giuseppe Rossi up front. From the opening whistle, Villarreal did indeed attack. Nilmar nearly was put through in the first minute, Helton had to punch away a dangerous Nilmar cross with Ruben lurking, Ruben put a free header over the bar when he should have done better, and Cani forced Helton to palm away a goal-bound shot--and that was just in the first seven minutes.

Villarreal was playing at a fantastic tempo, and the Porto defense, playing a high line, was struggling to contain Nilmar especially. The Yellow Submarine nearly had an opener when Ruben's cross just eluded Rossi with the goal gaping. Then Cani scored in the 17th minute following an excellent buildup and final pass from Ruben (who may have been fractionally offside, I add in the spirit of fairness).

Unlike in Portugal, this goal didn't seem to galvanise Porto at all, and from about the 25th minute to the 35th minute, how Villarreal didn't score again I still can't understand. The attacking pressure was relentless, but again, as in the first half in Portugal, Giuseppe Rossi was trying to do too much. He passed up an opportunity to slip a pass to Nilmar, preferring to shoot himself from the 18-yard box, and then he couldn't get the ball out from under his feet. But the most egregious error in judgment came in the 30th minute: Rossi was put through by Cani, I believe, but tried to beat Helton from a difficult angle. Had he lifted a pass over Helton, Ruben was onside and could have tapped the ball into the empty net. What a missed opportunity.

Shortly after that came a talking point. Falcao was fighting for the ball with both Bruno and Musacchio, lost it, and aimed a short, angry kick at one of the defenders' legs. It was intentional without being definitely malicious, but it was a stupid (and dangerous) thing to do, particularly on a yellow card. Fortunately for him and Porto, the linesman either didn't see it or didn't consider it important.

And then came heartbreak five minutes before halftime. To this point, Porto's counterattacks hadn't quite clicked, though Guarín, Hulk and Falcao had looked dangerous once or twice. On this occasion, Hulk ran at the defense and struck a shot from probably 25 yards out. It would not have amounted to anything, except that the ball hit Musacchio (who was running away from the shot) and looped over the luckless Diego López.

In the last five minutes, López produced a fine one-on-one save from Hulk, and Nilmar missed the target when he was put through; it might have been easier to score. Frustration all around.

HT: Villarreal 1-1 Porto

The second half started just as the first had, with Villarreal storming the Dragons' lair (the goal, that is). In the first two minutes, Villarreal had yet more chances, but couldn't finish them off. And then the dagger. A clinical counterattack, with a pass from Guarín to Falcao, who beautifully trapped the ball and finished it off. An outstanding goal, and we knew the Dublin dream was done.

And yet Villarreal kept trying. Heads dropped a little after that goal, but Garrido brought on Wakaso Mubarak and Carlos Marchena for Matilla and Santi. Wakaso managed to both win a yellow on a Porto defender and earn one himself within five minutes. Guarín forced Diego López to tip a thunderous free kick off the crossbar, and another clinical Porto counterattack ended lamely with a tentative prod from James Rodríguez right to López. Thanks.

Villarreal was exercising more pressure, but again, all the huffing and puffing wasn't resulting in anything. It just didn't seem that the ball was bouncing the right way. Rossi's night was personified when he pushed a perfect ball across the goalmouth-- and two Villarreal players couldn't get to it to finish it off. Somewhere in here, another shot bounced off someone and spun past Cani-- again, an easy goal if the ball had fallen to him.

Marcos Senna came on for Villarreal, replacing Nilmar, though not before the Brazilian striker put another shot wide of the mark. And just when Ray Hudson said that Villarreal could play all night and not score (thanks for the shout-out, Ray!), they did. Joan Capdevila put one home from close in with a left-footed volley in the 75th minute, and it was now 2-2. Villarreal was playing for pride, while Porto was trying to soak up pressure and break up attacks without having to extend themselves too much.

Villarreal earned some pride and completed the fight-back when Otamendi pulled down Ruben in the box (a more stone-cold penalty you will not see). Rossi did as he has all season, waiting for the goalkeeper to make the first move with his syncopated run-up and converting the penalty with aplomb. Of course Helton cried foul, but given that he kept trying to annoy Rossi by spinning the ball on the penalty spot while the referee was setting everything up, it was sweet revenge.

The remaining ten minutes plus injury time passed innocently enough. Ruben had another penalty shout, though this one certainly was more questionable; somewhere in here Ruben also had a nice header off a corner that would've gone in, but it hit Capdevila. Oh well.

FT: Villarreal 3-2 Porto. Porto advances 7-4 on aggregate.

A few final impressions: Villarreal out-shot Porto over the two legs, but more than that, the Submarine had many excellent goal-scoring opportunities that didn't end in shots. We've been reliant on Rossi and Nilmar so much this season, and their finishing generally has been spot on, but in both ties, that was not true. Rossi worked like a demon out there, but his decision-making was not at its usual high level. That probably sounds like more of a criticism than I mean it to be; it's just that, in comparison with some of his performances this year, he'll be disappointed in how he did against Porto.

And of course, without Ángel López and Gonzalo Rodríguez, Porto's counterattacking just killed us. I still believe that, if Gonzalo had not been injured, we might have beaten Porto. That's partly because of the confidence that he gives us at the back and partly because, since he went out, players like Musacchio have been tremendously overworked. But who knows.

Porto is very good, for sure. Falcao is as good a finisher as I've seen, and Hulk and Guarín are excellent. And they were missing one of their starting defenders in Fucile. I did not like some of their arrogance, though unlike some, I didn't find Villas-Boas unlikable or arrogant. And I do have some sympathy for a team which is always developing players and then seeing them leave for "bigger clubs." Porto has that problem, just as Villarreal does.

If Villas-Boas and these players all return, I think they'll do OK in the Champions League, but they will need to add some defensive stability. They can't give teams that many chances and hope to win. However, I do expect them to win the Europa League final, as they face compatriots SC Braga in Dublin on May 18.

Next for Villarreal is an early Sunday kickoff (12 noon in Spain, 6 AM EDT!) in Mallorca against the baleares, who absolutely hate our guts. It won't be easy, but if we play as well as we did today, we should win. Everyone should take pride in Vila-real tonight. Endavant Villarreal!