A homage to the fans at Estadio El Madrigal, with Javier Tebas in the full home stands. An impressive Villarreal debut for on-loan Atlético Madrid starlet Óliver Torres. And Ikechukwu Uche at the center of attention, even though he only played 35 minutes.
At the end of the day, three officiating wrongs don't make a right. So Villarreal and Real Betis shared the spoils on Sunday afternoon, with each side disappointed that the result did not help its season goals. For the visitors, the single point combined with Rayo Vallecano's win over ten-man Valencia sets the verdiblancos even further adrift as the colista. For the hosts, Athletic Bilbao's win over Granada means the Champions League places now sit six points away with only twelve matches left.
Three keys to a disappointing climax to the afternoon at El Madrigal:
1. Uche's first booking. The first half was a bit of a bore, and not just because the match started at 6 am Eastern Time. Jérémy Perbet had a decent chance, but Iker Casillas' former backup Adán saved comfortably enough. Betis sat back and absorbed, as would have been expected, with Baptistao and rumored Yellow Submarine target Rubén Castro held in check by a makeshift back four of Mario Gaspar, Aleksandar Pantic, Gabriel Paulista, and Bojan Jokic. The fans at the match must have enjoyed it more, with the organized pre-match complimentary paella and 12th-minute ovation (here we come, Seattle Seahawks!). I was at the last noontime kickoff with a green-and-white-clad opponent, and we enjoyed ourselves even without any planned festivities.
Manager Marcelino García Toral was clearly displeased with our three-half scoring drought against the worst team in La Liga, so he made a highly atypical double switch at the break. Nahuel Leiva had repeated in the starting XI after impressing against Espanyol, but without much support up front, he lacked Monday's cutting edge - Óliver was given 45 minutes to strut his stuff. And a largely invisible Perbet was replaced by Uche - the Frenchman has it some games and not in others. 0-0 to start the second half.
The former Nigerian international (Stephen Keshi, you may want to reconsider) was on the verge of opening the scoring on the hour mark, flashing over from six yards out. Fellow substitute Óliver fabricated the chance, and the teenager continued to impress throughout the second half. Three minutes later, Uche went into the book for a risky but clean slide tackle to recover the ball near the Betis box. I was convinced that the yellow card could be appealed...
2. Uche's penalty. Clearly Marcelino has confidence in Uche, and the manager was repaid with twenty minutes to play. After Manu Trigueros replaced Pantic, sliding Bruno Soriano to center back, Uche forced Amaya into a yellow card with the pace of a counterattack. Just seconds later, the Villarreal #8 had forced a clear-cut penalty, or so it looked live with my yellow-tinted glasses.
Thanks to some typical hustle, from an onside position, Uche beat Chica to a misplaced touch in the box. The striker in yellow went down, the home fans mounted a cry, and the referee blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. But upon further review, Chica got the ball first, then only the man. A gift for Villarreal, and Bruno (interestingly) took full advantage, sending Adán the wrong way with a Giuseppe Rossi-like paradinha. 1-0 with 20 minutes to play, and some justice(?) for the horrendous officiating in the first leg at the Estadio Benito Villamarín. But not for long...
3. Uche's second booking. In addition to Bruno out of position at center back (Marcelino was unusually out of substitutions so early), the back four that needed to keep a clean sheet featured three players with limited Primera experience. Time and again Mario was skinned by Cedrick, but the Congolese winger did the same to Real Madrid, so no shame there. Villarreal looked comfortable enough until the referee struck again.
With Uche on a yellow card, perhaps he should have been more careful. And yet again the tackle came from the side. But if you get the ball first, as Uche did on both occasions and Chica on the "penalty", youth league rules for dangerous play should not apply. Despite Uche's protests and a decent chance that both cards will be overturned by the committee, Villarreal went down to 10 men and limped home to the finish line.
After an extended period in the Villarreal half, Betis found an equalizer through - whom else? - Rubén Castro, who darted between Gabriel and Jokic to head home from close range. Nothing Sergio Asenjo could do on that one. But a draw suited neither side, so Betis pushed on in search of glory, which it nearly found from a corner with Asenjo rooted on his line.
All Villarreal needed was one chance to send the El Madrigal faithful home happy, and Óliver yet again turned provider. With the visitors playing a high line, the newest teenage wunderkind in yellow played a delightful ball over the top to a streaking Giovani dos Santos - note this first mention of the Mexican international. Thanks to a Rubén Cani-like incisive ball, Gio was in with only Adán to beat, but he could not do so on this day. And at the death, Asenjo came out fearlessly to deny a point-blank header and save Villarreal's blushes. 1-1 at full time.
Outlook. The fans deserved three points on their day, but the slipper does not always fit. Credit to Betis for continuing to fight and being full value for their point. Wish that Villarreal could grind out results like the Valencia of yore, but not just yet.
On to Granada, no longer the league's worst home team (but close). With a Yellow Submarine win and an Athletic loss in Valencia (entirely possible), Villarreal could slide back into fourth place the following round. But one match at a time. Endavant Villarreal!