It all should have--could have--been so much better, but yet again Villarreal failed at a key moment of the season. Things began well for Villarreal: in the eighth minute Aquino totally befuddled two Elche defenders, one took him down in the area, and the referee pointed to the spot. Jeremy Perbet made no mistake, with an excellent penalty struck low, har, and into the corner, and it was 1-0.
Unfortunately, although Villarreal dominated the first half in terms of style and substance, there were not really many periods of sustained pressure. The Submarine was trying to be more direct, but for the most part the Elche defense was able to cut out the last ball before it found an attacker. Oriol and Mario, as usual, provided poor crosses, and it seemed Gerard was being pushed too far away from Perbet to really link up much.
Nonetheless, Villarreal were clearly the better team, and Aquino the best player on the pitch. And we should have gone 2-0 up in the 28th minute, when Perbet neatly slotted home a through ball only to see it waved off for offside. It was a close call--very tight--but to me it looked as if Perbet was even with the defender when the ball was played.
Elche's coach Escriba was not happy with his team's play, but their midfield was beginning to string some passes together: Xumetra, Gil, Mantecon and Generelo were however not playing any sort of last ball to Coro, their lone striker, to create opportunities. Villarreal did have an excellent opportunity just before the break when Bruno and Cani combined to find Gerard but Elche keeper Manu Herrera made a key stop.
HT Villarreal 1-0 Elche
Whatever Escriba said to his players at halftime, it certainly worked. In the first five minutes of the half Elche looked far more comfortable in possession and dangerous on the break, but even so no Submarine supporter could have expected what happened next. The Elche defense broke up an attack and got the ball to Mantecon down our right, and they supported in numbers with only Mellberg and Musacchio back to defend. Mantecon made an excellent diagonal pass to Carles Gil, who easily tucked the ball home with Juan Carlos beaten.
And just three minutes later it happened again--again down our right (I have no idea where Mario was) and this time it was David Generelo who finished the play off, with Juan Carlos again having no chance.
Marcelino made changes, of course; Gerard came off for Uche, which was a bit odd but, given the youngster and Perbet hadn't been able to do much together, I suppose reasonable. Canteros came off for Manu in the 65th minute--a more offensive move--and in the 78th minute came the final roll of the dice, with Jony replacing Cani.
For the first twenty minutes after Elche's second goal, Villarreal didn't look terribly impressive. Elche were of course happy to defend in numbers, and also happy to let Mario or Oriol have the ball in space on the wings, while shutting down Aquino (who disappeared from our attack as the half wore on, I thought). We were willing, and had one close call when a Perbet header just grazed the outside of the post with the keeper beaten, but it wasn't looking good.
But then, we won a free kick in the Elche half, and Perbet's ball was flicked on to Uche in front of an open goal and thankfully he didn't fall over or mishit the ball, but scored. 2-2, 10 minutes to go.
And yet. While it was beginning to look as though maybe Villarreal could come back and win this thing (Uche and Jony having just been unable to control the ball in the box with the Elche defense looking a bit confused), here came the sucker punch. Elche won a free kick in our half down the right, and the resulting free kick (I don't know who took it) was perfectly--and powerfully-- headed home by Ángel Rodriguez, who had come on for Xumetra earlier. An excellent goal, but no one picked him up and there was no one at the near post--Juan Carlos was in the center of the goal.
3-2 Elche, and worse was to happen before it was over. Bruno Soriano, trying to recover the ball on the edge of the Elche box, slid into a tackle on Generelo with studs raised and received his second yellow of the match. Down to 10 men now, and just for good measure Musacchio received a yellow card for an elbow on an aerial challenge, so he will also miss the next match against Alcorcon.
There were four minutes of injury time, but an Elche substitution used one of them, a couple of rolling-around-on-the-ground-after-being-touched moments on the part of the illicitanos used up another, and the remainder was mostly spent with throw-ins and Elche's midfielders playing keepaway. I honestly don't remember the ball being in their half of the pitch after we were down to 10 men.
FT Villarreal 2-3 Elche
Sidarth predicted five goals in this match on our podcast. Pity they didn't come down all for us as he hoped.
First loss in 15 matches; first time we allowed more than one goal in 15 matches; first time we allowed a goal after the 70th minute of a match since Las Palmas, eleven games ago. We picked a terrible time for our defense to go walkabout.
(1) We played very well in the first half. Hard to know if things might have been different if that Perbet goal had been allowed to stand, but not translating that superiority into a 2-0 lead by halftime was huge.
(2) No question we seemed rocked by the first goal, and after the second we seemed to lose our confidence and collective plan. Aquino disappeared from the attack, and Bruno and Cani, who had been excellent in the first half at controlling the ball in the middle third, were less effective.
(3) Mario picked a bad time to have his worst game of the season. And Joan Oriol wasn't much better, especially in the second half.
(4) Credit to Elche: three goals on four shots on goal. Ruthless use of opportunities.
(5) Villarreal must've had at least 9 corners in this game, and yet nothing came of them. The closest I remember to danger from one came on an Elche counter. In particular, in the first half it seemed every corner we had we tried to do the same thing, a long corner toward Musacchio or Mellberg, and it never worked.
(6) Perbet should always start! He was our best player for 90 minutes. He just didn't have enough support.
(7) Yet again, why do all the marginal calls go against us? Again, I am not saying we would have won the game or even drawn it if Perbet's goal had been allowed--credit to Elche for their fightback--but it seems every week a crucial call is denying us a goal or allowing one for the other side.
(8) Oh, and finally full credit to those Elche supporters (hundreds of them!!) who made the trip to Vila-real. Their inveterate timewasting and invented injuries toward the end notwithstanding, Elche was far more impressive than when we played them earlier. I just don't see them doing much in the Primera, but the bottom half of that league is so poor, you never know....
It will be key now for Marcelino to reinstill confidence into this team, which was shattered today by this loss. Especially knowing we play Alcorcon next week with two regulars suspended. I cannot see any way we earn automatic promotion now, barring a Girona collapse, so our goal has to be finishing third. We will need at least a draw next Sunday in Alcorcon to do that.
There are realistically seven teams competing for six places as far as potential promotion is concerned. We are likely to be in a tie for fourth/fifth after today, with a three point lead over Ponferradina (and we own the tiebreak over them). But we cannot fall apart at this point of the season.