After eight weeks of outclassing some of La Liga's underbelly (aside from a pulsating home draw against Real Madrid), Villarreal steps up in weight class on Monday night. Next up: a daunting visit to San Mamés Barria to take on Athletic Bilbao. An intriguing clash of European contenders to round out a surprising jornada 9 in the Primera.
From a Yellow Submarine perspective, there are reasons for optimism:
1. History. Villarreal has a 5-4-4 record in 13 visits to Bilbo -- all in the top flight, as the Basques have never been relegated. I believe Villarreal is the only club with a winning league record in a very imposing environment. And Jozy Altidore has fond memories of Bilbo -- the scene of his only league goal in yellow and the first scored in La Liga by an American.
2. Form. Los Leones are looking up at Villarreal in the table, with the visitors having suffered only one defeat in eight league matches to start the season. Athletic is also off to a solid start, but thirteen goals conceded so far is a concern for a typically stout backline. And Ernesto Valverde's recently constructed midfield featuring Ander Herrera (from Zaragoza) and Beñat Etxebarria (from Real Betis) is still a work in progress.
3. Morbo. Speaking of Valverde, Manuel Pellegrini's first replacement in Vila-real put the wheels in motion for the Yellow Submarine's eventual relegation in 2011-12. Poor performances in La Liga and the Copa del Rey led to Valverde's ouster, which brought on the tumultuous Juan Carlos Garrido era. One Europa League semifinal and embarrassing Champions League run later, and Garrido was out, to be followed by a managerial carousel until Marcelino García Toral's arrival. Rubén Cani and Bruno Soriano certainly remember Valverde.
My Villarreal expected XI (a more physical team than usual): Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Dorado, J. Costa; Pina, Bruno; Cani, Aquino; Gio, Perbet.
My Villarreal expected bench (Bojan Jokić and Gabriel Paulista are injured, and Hernán Pérez surprisingly omitted): J. Carlos; Pantic, Íñiguez; Manu, Moi; Uche, Jony.
Athletic expected XI (from Marca): Iraizoz; Iraola, Gurpegi, San José, Balenziaga; Beñat, Iturraspe; Susaeta, Ander, Muniain; Aduriz.
The match will begin at 4 pm Eastern Time and air on BeIN Sport en Español. There should be no shortage of streams. Endavant Villarreal!