Villarreal took a major step towards their only goal this season--remaining in the Primera División--with an astonishing goal in the last minute of injury-time to defeat the boquerones in a game that will long be remembered in Vila-real.
For the first hour or so, there was absolutely nothing to suggest this game would be a memorable one for either team. Villarreal lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Marco Ruben ploughing a lone furrow up front, Martinuccio, Senna and Camuñas behind him, Bruno and Borja in the pivote and a back four of Catala, Musacchio, Gonzalo and Zapata. No Cani, no Nilmar, no Oriol.
Villarreal could have taken the lead within four minutes when a Senna shot from the top of the box scraped off the crossbar, but after that there was very little excitement around either goal. For the first half hour Villarreal dominated possession (apart from a header over the goal by Duda from a corner, I don't remember any Malaga attacks of note) but were unable to create much.
Malaga was playing a very high defensive line and the Submarine attackers were called for offside six times in the half, and our favored tactic, pasing the ball wide to cross into the box, didn't produce much. Martinuccio and Camunas were being professionally marked, sometimes fouled, and the referee was not interested in awarding anything for little pushes. Camuñas in particular seemed upset with things.
Martinuccio shot wide form the top of the box on 32 minutes, and after that Malaga seemed to wake up. Santi Cazorla had been relatively anonymous to this point, but he nearly produced a fine assist. Fortunately Rondon couldn't finish with anything other than a grass-cutter. Eliseu had another chance after a good buildup but didn't hit it well, and Isco beat Gonzalo and Bruno at the top of the box, hit a strong shot that Diego López spilled but fell on in time.
HT Villarreal 0-0 Málaga
Based on the first half, it was hard to see how we could score, slightly easier to see how Malaga might, but not by much. It seems once a match Villarreal's defense has some sort of Keystone Kops routine, and this time it was produced by Zapata miskicking a clearance in our half off Gonzalo. But we survived that scare, headed up the pitch, and were called for offside again.
At this point both coaches were looking to their benches for inspiration, because for what was supposed to be a game full of pulsating energy, this was threatening to become as exciting as watching paint dry (or maybe I should say installing ceramic tiles?). Lotina was first to make a move; he had Hernán Perez ready to come in, but waited as Villarreal won a corner. Unfortunately, the corner was easily cleared, and Malaga headed forward.
That man Isco, who had already created danger a couple of times with neat moves, did it again, and this time instead of shooting himself found Santi Cazorla whose run wasn't picked up by Gonzalo. Santi hit a low, quick shot across Diego Lopez and just inside the far post. Wonder how often that had happened in training....
As Santi had said, he didn't celebrate the goal. He looked bereft of any joy, realizing that goal might very well send Villarreal down. 24 minutes to go, and VIllarreal had created next to nothing, so it wasn't looking good.
Hernán Pérez came on for Camuñas, whom one might have forgotten was on the pitch after the first 20 minutes. Seba Fernandez replaced Duda, van Noostelroy replaced Rondon, and Nilmar came on for Martinuccio (who did okay, but also drifted out of the game after halftime). In among the substitutions, Villarreal missed a chance to equalize when Gonzalo headed a good Borja cross over the bar.
An even better chance went begging when Borja (who was now playing farther forward with Nilmar and Hernan Perez on) put the ball on a platter for Marco Ruben with a perfect cross to the far post, and somehow Ruben kicked over the ball. At that point it seemed all was lost.
And then, hope! Someone (I honestly don't know who it was, Ruben maybe?) crossed the ball into the area for Hernan Perez, and as he controlled it he was upended by goalkeeper Kameni. A red card for the keeper, Malaga down to 10 men, and a penalty kick. The only way it could have been better was if Malaga had used all their substitutes--which they nearly had, Jesus Gamez actually waiting to come in when the penalty incident occurred.
First-choice keeper Willy Caballero is out for the rest of the season with a broken hand, so it was third-stringer Rubén who came on. Senna cheekily put the penalty kick down the middle, Ruben moving to his left, and it was 1-1!
Now there were seven minutes left plus injury time. Malaga had sacrificed Isco when changing keepers, and Villarreal wanted to attack but yet be alert to the danger of a through ball or quick break. (Gonzalo had come off injured earlier, too, with Marchena on--not someone who inspires confidence these days). Sure enough, Marchena committed a foul in the center circle, but nothing came of that Malaga short-handed attempt; then Hernan Perez gave the ball away in midfield but again the defense was able to handle things.
As injury time continued, Villarreal tested Malaga's dodgy keeper--Marchena and Nilmar going close. Then in the fourth minute, Villarreal won a corner. The ball was punched clear by Ruben, but straight to Hernan Perez, who hit the ball right back where it had come from--and the keeper couldn't get it, neither could the Malaga defender vainly lunging to keep it out!! And that was it!!
FT Villarreal 2-1 Malaga
Okay, I'm not sure how we won this, and I'm not sure I still believe we did! But given all the late goals and points we've thrown away this season, I'm delighted to pick up three points.
Of course it's hard to argue against Hernan Perez as the man of the match (a penalty won and a goal scored in less than 30 minutes) but I thought Cristian Zapata was tremendous, as was Mateo Musacchio. I hope Lotina junks the 4-2-3-1 against Racing, because Marco Ruben wasn't able to hold up anything today to give Martinuccio or Camunas a chance to do much!