The Villarreal USA briantrust (or what passes for it) was united in thinking this would be our toughest test yet--a match against an Atletico Madrid team lying second in the league, with 11 wins in 12 games. And to make matters worse, we would be without Gio dos Santos, injured against Elche the week before. True, the visitors would be without Filipe Luis (suspended), Diego Godin (on international duty) and Adrian (injured but in the squad).
Villarreal's lineup was about what we expected--Jony partnering Uche up front in Gio's absence, Pina alongside Bruno in midfield, and Gabriel Paulista replacing the injured Chechu Dorado in our back four. I guess the only real question was Hernan or Aquino, and Marcelino went for the Paraguayan.
And the crowd had hardly settled in when Villarreal were behind, as Mario Gaspar attempted to head away a dangerous cross but instead put the ball past Asenjo for an own goal in the second minute of play. Mario has been closer and closer to getting on the scoresheet of late, but this wasn't what he had in mind....
At least Villarreal had almost the entire match to catch up. And perhaps with an eye to his rejigged backline, perhaps too knowing the Submarine had failed to dent Getafe's defense once they got ahead early and sat back, Simeone was happy to see his players concede possession to Villarreal, attempting to strike with quick counters of their own.
Not to say Atleti sat back quietly--Bruno had to go off to have his head bandaged early in the proceedings--and the rojiblancos committed 22 fouls on the day--but considering Villarreal has generally had less than 50% possession this season, it was unusual to see us able to pretty much do what we wanted until we reached the final third.
Villarreal outshot Atleti 16 to 7 on the day, and a good number of those shots were on either side of halftime--but as Maddi commented, Courtois was too damn tall in the Atleti net. Meanwhile, Villarreal was keeping Atleti pretty much under control, with Bruno in particular having a tremendous match in midfield. Atleti's pass completion rate for the game was an astonishingly low 60% (ours was 81%).
Yet again, Marcelino showed a willingness to go to his bench early, bringing on Trigueros and Aquino for Pina and the unfortunately ineffective Hernán Perez with half-an-hour still remaining. And with fifteen minutes remaining, on came Jérémy Perbet for Jony (who I just think is too lightweight to make a real impact in these sorts of games--I would prefer to see him as a late sub, not a starter). Meanwhile, Atleti's last shot on goal had happened in the 38th minute.
In the 79th minute, Perbet did most of the work, collecting a throw-in from Bruno, muscling his way past an Atleti defender and squaring the ball to Uche. Whether the Nigerian got the final touch or whether it was defender Juanfran, trying to poke the ball away with a left-footed lunge, I don't know; I've seen different reports credit the goal different ways. But at any rate, Courtois was beaten and it was 1-1.
That is the way it ended, with Atleti pretty happy to escape with a point as it turned out. A special word about Diego Costa, so much in the news of late--he was a non-factor in this game. Maybe the Brazil-Spain tussle for his services gave our Brazilian, Gabriel Paulista, some extra incentive, but he neutralized Costa--so much so that after our goal, Adrian came on for him in an attempt to provide some spark up front.
General consensus is men of the match were Bruno and Gabriel, and Perbet's entry into the match finally gave us what we needed to create a breakthrough. Marcelino, in his after-match comments, said we were the better team and, in response to a question about the fans' treatment of Uche, compared it to Benzema's at Madrid.
A final note: Villarreal's 7-3-3 start is the best for a newly promoted team in La Liga since 1965, when Pontevedra (!) won 8 of their first 13 en route to a 7th place finish (there were only 16 teams in the first division then). 24 points from 13 matches, more than halfway to 'salvation'. Endavant Villarreal!!