We haven't had one of these in a while... before I get to the player selections I of course want to give a "big up" to mister Lotina. With the team having another day off it's a bit of a slow news day in Vila-real, and EPM has spoken to Lotina's assistant, José Luis Ribera, to get his comments on Lotina's approach.
Obviously (as the results have shown so far) the big difference has been that the team has tightened up defensively. Ribera notes that he and Lotina "have introduced some new defensive principles" (the clean sheet on Sunday was our first since the Barca game January 28) but also (shock!!) that players perform better when they're played in their natural positions:
Speaking of Real Madrid, they take on another yellow team, APOEL, today in the Champions League. Our fellow SBN blog, Managing Madrid, has profiled the Cypriots here (I know, horrible pun in the title, but go with it) and there's also a nice BBC article as well. I believe the game is on Fox Sports in the US. Interesting that not only do they play in yellow, their stadium is about the size of El Madrigal.
Okay, now let's get to the 3 Up. Tough choice this week. I am going to pick 4, and still leave out deserving players....always a sign we've been playing well.
(1) Rubén Cani. We've been critical of the ex-Zargoza man much of the season, but against both Madrid and Rayo he played in a slightly different role, behind the strikers at the top of a midfield diamond, essentially, and performed well. He created our first goal on Sunday, of course, but in both games was busy breaking up plays, creating opportunities, and (for a change) not getting in the referee's face too much! Lotina seems to have asked him to give ~60 really quality minutes a game, and he has responded.
(2) Mario Gaspar. It's been a tale of three seasons for Mario. Coach Garrido used him until Ángel returned, then discarded him; Coach Molina never played him; Coach Lotina has started him twice, with excellent results. Maybe Mario is just well-rested, but he showed a burst of speed against Rayo that had us wondering if it was really Mario out there! And positionally he has been good.
(3) Diego Lopéz. He made a couple of key saves against Rayo, one from a Armenteros header that would have tied the score and another from a Movilla strike in injury time; against Madrid he really didn't have all that much to do, amazingly enough. But quite apart from specific plays, our 'keeper, who only a short time ago was saying he wished the season would be over (the implication being the longer it continued, the lower in the standings we might fall) is playing with confidence. As Madrid lined up to take a last-minute corner, López was winking at his defenders--we've got this. And we did.
(4) Marcos Senna. Do you need to ask why? Game in, game out, he has been strong. And his free kick goal against Madrid will be replayed for years to come--and may have just been the spark this team needed to save this season.
(1) Joan Oriol. Yeah, he won the free kick that Senna converted, but against Rayo in the second half Lass Bangoura pretty much destroyed him. Oriol couldn't stay close to him, in fact he looked like he couldn't even find him most of the time. However, Oriol at least avoided committing silly fouls and giving away dangerous free kicks, so credit to him for that. Jaume Costa showed some promise in the couple of games he played, but realistically Oriol is going to remain at left back. But step it up,please, Joan!
(2) Gonzalo Rodriguez. It's been a tough season for Gonzalo. He was slow to recover from his horrific leg-break, and while he's never been a pacy defender, he seems to have lost a step. He had been a constant starter under Molina, but Coach Lotina seems to have decided his best center-back pairing is Mateo Musacchio and Cristián Zapata, and so far he appears to be right; they have worked well together. I've always thought Gonzalo's commitment enabled him to cover up some of his partner's mistakes in the center of our defense, but that commitment also has led to rash challenges and positional errors.
(3) Gonzalo Castellani. Molina put him on the promotion fast-track and made him his first-choice midfielder off the bench, but under Lotina, Jonathan deGuzmán appears to have taken his place in the team. Castellani has looked okay in limited action without wowing anyone, sure, but I don't expect to see him getting a lot of playing time in the remaining nine games.
Nine "finals" remain. Endavant Villarreal!!