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Preview: The Champions League awaits Villarreal in Odense

The journey to Munich begins with Wednesday's first whistle.
The journey to Munich begins with Wednesday's first whistle.

Last year, Villarreal fought for an entire season to aim for this moment.  Well, not really this moment.  The ideal would have been a top-3 finish, and thus there would be no question of a playoff to make it to the group stages.  Nonetheless, the club isn't complaining at a chance to make it to the group stage by taking on Odense in a two-legged tie starting on Wednesday.

Odense is no stranger to upsets in Europe.  Coming off a stirring 5-4 aggregate victory over Greek side Panathinaikos, the Danes will be thinking most fondly back to their most famous win.  In the 1994-1995 UEFA Cup, OB, in the midst of their deepest-ever run in Europe, took on Real Madrid in the fourth round.  Having dropped the first leg in Odense 2-3, OB managed the exact 2-0 scoreline they needed to defeat Madrid.  With that match in their minds, facing a humble side from a small town they probably couldn't put on a map doesn't sound like an impossible task for the Danish side.

Villarreal and Odense come into the match in very different stages of match fitness.  Odense already have 7 competitive matches under their belts.  In addition to the two matches against Panathinaikos, the club is currently sitting 4th in the Danish Superliga, with 8 points through 5 matches (2-2-1), 5 points off the pace of FC København.  In their most recent match, they fell 2-1 away to AaB, perhaps thinking ahead to the matchup against Villarreal.

Villarreal have not yet played a match that counts, and they have had an up and down preseason.  Manager Juan Carlos Garrido has spent a lot of time experimenting with various lineups, with varied results.  At times Villarreal have played excellent football, including back-to-back victories over Lazio and Everton.  At other times, though, Villarreal have looked a shell of themselves, in part due to the lineup used, and in part due to poor play, such as the loss to Wigan or the embarrassing result against University College Dublin.  

Odense can be expected to line up as follows, courtesy of Peter Hansen (@Lyngbyyy on Twitter).

They switch it a little and my guess will be that they play in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1. The 4 defenders will be (from right to left): Espen Ruud - Tore Reginiussen - Anders Møller Christensen - Chris Sørensen (Because Mendy is suspended). The midfield is their main focus and the strongest part of them team. Hans Henrik Andreasen is one of the best and most scoring midfielders in the league, while Kalilou Traore and Eric Djemba Djemba are very good too. Baskim Kadrii and Rasmus Falk are young and very fast on the offensive midfield/wingers, while Peter Utaka is the striker. He fights a lot, but doesn't have the luck to score at the moment. But he is very good, when he has his days.

Danish commenter Jens noted, though, that Peter Utaka (striker) and Tore Reginiussen (defender) are both rumored to be stricken with injuries, and could be sidelined for the match.  

Villarreal's traveling squad:

Keepers: Diego López, César and Mariño.
Defenders: Mario, Cristián Zapata, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Mateo Musacchio, Jose Manuel Catalá, Joan Oriol and Carlos Marchena.
Midfielders: Bruno, Marcos Senna, Marcos Gullón, Borja Valero, Hernán Pérez, Ruben Cani, Wakaso Mubarak and Camuñas.
Forwards: Marco Ruben, Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi.

This will be an especially interesting match to watch, as a number of factors converge to create some uncertainty in the lineup.  First of all, it is the first competitive match of the season, the Trofeo de la Cerámica notwithstanding.  It is Garrido's first match in charge of a team in the Champions League.  It is the first match with the likes of Zapata, Hernán Pérez, and Camuñas.  

Further, Villarreal has a lot of pressure on it.  There is the economic benefits - and long term status benefits - of being in the Champions League.  And, Villarreal is expected to win the matchup with the Danish side.  Nevertheless, Odense has a ton of confidence at the moment following its recent famous win over Panathinaikos.  And if they get down,  they can always reach back to the Miracle in Madrid.  Altogether, I do not envy Garrido one bit - this won't be easy.  

The away leg is going to be crucial here.  Villarreal's recent history is not reassuring when it comes to closing down the return leg of a draw.  If Villarreal are not able to pull out a victory on the road, no one in Vila-real will be sleeping easy over the next few days waiting for the Danes to come to Spain.

My predicted lineup:

Diego López
Mario - Zapata - Gonzalo - Joan Oriol
Cani - Bruno - Senna - Valero
Ruben - Rossi

This should be a stern test for Villarreal's back four, a group that is only beginning to congeal into a unit.  Zapata has been around for only a few weeks, and while Oriol in the back has been with the club a bit longer, his eyes are going to be wide when the Champions League anthem comes on before the match.  Mario has a year of experience under his belt in Europe, but as a rule he is a step slow, and that is always a valid cause for concern.  Gonzalo is Gonzalo, and we all love him for it - except for those inopportune red cards (which did drop off last year).  All in all, Garrido's brow will be a bit sweaty at times during the match.  But my impression is that Zapata is going to be an immediate calming influence in the back, and that through an effective partnership between the Columbian and Gonzalo, the group will settle down.

The key to the match for me is the play of Cani.  Cani can make or break this team depending on his form in a particular match, and with the agonizing departure of club hero Santi Cazorla, Cani will be called upon more than ever to provide the spark the club needs.  Cani has the talent - something we have known for years.  The question is whether he can display that talent on a consistent basis, and in the big matches.

But all of that concern is not reflected in my expectations for the match.  If you listened to the Villarreal USA podcast, you already heard my prediction for the match - 1-3.  From Odense, a goal from Bashkim Kadrii, the OB midfielder that has been on fire of late, scoring in 3 of his last 4 matches.  From Villarreal, the goals will come from Cani, Rossi, and Ruben.