Villarreal and Athletic Bilbao played to an entertaining 1-1 draw in front of a good crowd at San Mamés today, and while both teams will feel they had their chances to win it, in the end Villarreal can probably feel the better of the two sides after their best display on the road in La Liga in a good while.
Let's give some credit to coach Garrido here--he played what many of us, including me, thought was a dicey lineup to start, moving Zapata out to right bank in place of Mario and putting Gonzalo and Musacchio in the middle of the back four, with Catalá at left back. Marcos Senna, Bruno, Cani and Borja were the midfield four, and Nilmar and Rossi played up front. Meanwhile, Athletic played four at the back with Javi Martinez in midfield, rather than central defense where he had played of late.
The Basques came out of the blocks quickly, and in the first five minutes Villarreal couldn't get the ball out of their own half. Within the first six minutes Athletic had been called for three offsides, and it was clear our strategy was to play a line along the top of the box and catch Athletic offside behind it, which happened quite regularly. We were content to break up possession and create counterattacks.
Villarreal should have taken the lead in the eighth minute. Nilmar won a free kick in the attacking half and Rossi, instead of trying to cross the ball into the box, slipped it quickly to an onrushing Borja. His low shot beat the keeper easily but was just outside the post.
Ten minutes later Marcos Senna shot over the top of the bar after some good buildup play, and as the first half continued it seemed a goal would come soon for Villarreal, because the game was becoming more wide open and Rossi and Nilmar, but also Cani and Borja, were playing well and forcing the Bilbao defence to make quality interventions to prevent excellent opportunities.
Athletic, meanwhile, was struggling to create much. While Muinain was outstanding, he didn't have enough support, and Gonzalo was dealing easily with anything crossed in toward Llorente. The San Mames faithful were whistling their disapproval as first Borja, then Cani (twice) had shots blocked inside the area and the Basques found themselves on the back foot. Villarreal was playing their game and growing in confidence.
But, as sometimes happens, a 'good image' on the pitch doesn't always translate into success, and so it was here. Twominutes before the half Musacchio gave away a free kick, taking down Llorente on the right wing, and Athletic caught Villarreal with a quickly-taken kick, pushed to an unmarked Susuaeta who fired a cross into the box that found Igor Gabilondo to left-foot the ball home for the opening goal.
HT Athletic Bilbao 1-0 Villarreal
Villarreal had outshot Athletic 8-4, had been outfouled for sure, and had seemed in control for much of the first half, yet trailed. What would happen now? Well, the good news was Villarreal didn't seem perturbed but kept to the game plan, catching the Lions offside again and counterattacking well, forcing numerous blocks and fouls to deny good chances. And Villarreal quickly drew even, as it happened also from a set piece. Cani took a quick free kick and played a through ball to Rossi, and he crossed or shot the ball--hard to tell if it really was a shot, but it was cleared off the line by the boot of an Atheltci defender--but only to Nilmar in front of goal.
Nilmar gleefully whacked the ball into the net but then went to check on Rossi, whose momentum had taken him off the pitch and into the boards. Ruben had been warming up anyway, and within five minutes he came on for Rossi. As we know, his left ankle has been bothering him, and this blow to his left knee couldn't have helped.
With Rossi out, we lost some width in attack, though we continued to probe the Bilbao defense with through balls in search of Ruben and Nilmar. And Nilmar also worked harder than I've seen him all year in recovering the ball--as for that matter did everyone. Nonetheless, the game was opening up again, and although Llorente seemed to fade away from the game, Bilbao did have a couple of dangerous shots on goal from counterattacks of their own, Diego Lopez making a couple of key saves.
The game was getting feisty--Zapata was lucky not to get in trouble for what could have been interpreted as a kick on Muniain, and the Athletic players, especially Javi Martinez, Ebiza, and Amorabieta, were putting in some lusty challenges. Referee Iglesias Villanueva had let things go a bit in the first 45 minutes, but now he produced his yellow card with increasing frequency. Javi Martinez, Musacchio, and Amorabieta all went in the book, and Musacchio was perhaps lucky not to get his marching orders with ten minutes to go when he pushed down Gaizka Toquero.
The Basque crowd was whistling its disapproval at that, and they weren't any happier two minutes later, when Ebiza hauled down Nilmar and was given his second yellow of the day. In the last ten minutes Villarreal controlled possession well enough with the man advantage, but never really made it count. De Guzman and Camuñas came on for Borja and Cani, but Villarreal were content to make sure they didn't press too many men forward to give Athletic a chance to nip another cheap goal and win the game. At the final whistle Garrido went to shake Bielsa's hand--he did give Garrido a brief handshake, but certainly seemed the less happy of the two coaches.
FT Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Villarreal
Before anything else, let me just say this was one of the more enjoyable games to watch Villarreal has played in a while. We played with tempo, we worked hard to recover the ball and create passing lanes, and the defense played well--they communicated with one another effectively and worked the offside trap very well, and also demonstrated individual skill to win one-on-one challenges and make key clearances.
The only real negative was the lack of shots on goal that really troubled the keeper. We only had three shots on goal in the game, which isn't usually enough to win. At the same time, though, we probably had six or seven times when passes that would have put Rossi, Ruben, or most often Nilmar just missed or were just touched away from danger by the defender. So I think we have to be happy that we were playing our style of game, even though not everything clicked.
It's the first time all season I can't really single out a player as having played badly or well below their potential. Sure, there will be some plays individual players will look back on--a pass that wasn't made well, a shot that missed its target, and the failure to defend the free kick that led to their goal--but overall, everyone looked like the players we know they are.
I was worried when I saw Gonzalo's name on the team sheet, because he had struggled every time out this season. Not today. I think he gave the ball away in our half with his first touch, but that was practically the only mistake I remember him making all day. He won balls in the air, made key tackles, marshaled the back line. Probably my man of the match, but there were others too. Nilmar looked fast, fit, and willing to challenge the opposition at every turn; it was great to see him get a goal today.
Playing Zapata out on the right turned out to be a good move, because it got Mario and his lack of pace out of the lineup. Zapata played well on the day, and his speed turned out to be important in breaking up a couple of quick attacks.
Marcos Senna played the entire game and looked great, he was like his old self out there. A couple of shots rocketed just over the top of the bar, too.
I wonder, thinking back on it, if a specific player will feel at fault for the sequence that led to the Bilbao goal, or if there was a bit of miscommunication somewhere.
Not for the first time, Villarreal was caught out by doing the right thing. Instead of playing the game of standing in the way of the player trying to take the free kick or anything like that, we allowed Muniain to take a quick, short free kick to Javi Martinez, and his one-touch pass to Iraola in the corner caught us napping. Reminiscent of the free-kick goal Barcelona scored against us at the Camp Nou last year, when we let Xavi make a little touch pass with the free kick to carve us open.
To be fair, Athletic Bilbao is improving. But I was more impressed with Muniain, Javi Martinez and Susaeta on the day than Llorente, and that can't be a good thing. Villarreal were better on the day. But, you win some when you don't play so well, you draw some when you do. That's the way it goes. The big concern after this game will be Rossi's ankle--hopefully it will be OK!!
Next up, a fun little fixture on Tuesday against Napoli. We'll preview that one for you on Monday. Endavant Villarreal!!