In August 2010 Villarreal coasted past Dniepr Mogilev 7-1 on aggregate to enter the group stages of that year's Europa League competition. We weren't quite sure how far that Villarreal team would go in the competition, to be honest--the club had only qualified for Europe courtesy of UEFA throwing out Mallorca, who filed bankruptcy and hadn't paid clubs for players they'd purchased, and putting Villarreal in their place. And coach Garrido had only taken over in midyear the season before.
Group Stage Results:
Coach Juan Carlos Garrido's squad were drawn in the group stage with Dinamo Zagreb, PAOK and Club Brugge. Going in, we figured the Belgians were the weakest of the squads, and the other two were about equal--both would be tough away matches.
So it proved with Dinamo. We lost in Zagreb 2-0 and Marcos Senna was sent off, not exactly a good beginning. Dinamo's goals came from Ante Rukavina (no relation to Antonio) and Sammir, now playing for Getafe.
Our next two matches were at home, and were both nervy encounters: we defeated Club Brugge 2-1 (they were a man down for more than an hour of the match) with goals from Rossi and Gonzalo, and a Marco Ruben goal was enough to defeat PAOK in El Madrigal, 1-0. Jozy Altidore got a taste of European football in that match, coming on for Ruben in the 82nd minute.
Garrido played for a draw in Greece, starting five defenders and resting Rossi, Santi Cazorla and Jefferson Montero. Jozy Altidore partnered Nilmar up front, too. The Submarine forced 10 corners, but could do nothing with them (sound familiar?) and in the partisan atmosphere of Thessaloniki, PAOK got the goal they needed in the 70th minute which provided the margin of victory.
Villarreal had one remaining home match, and the heroics of Ivan Kelava couldn't stop Dinamo from being defeated 3-0; Rossi scored two goals (one a penalty) and Ruben one, and Senna missed a penalty late on. Going into our last match in Belgium qualification seemed assured, but would we finish first or second in our group? PAOK defeated Dinamo to finish on 11 points, but two Rossi goals (another penalty, and a rare header) dispatched Club Brugge 2-1, gave us 12 points and first place.
Strategy and Players:
Garrido played much different lineups at El Madrigal than away from home. Partly this was because he didn't totally know what he had--Borja Valero was a new signing in a team that already had Cani and Santi Cazorla, for example. There were also players he was evaluating (and subsequently loaned out in January): Jefferson Montero and Jozy Altidore.
For all that we remember our strike partnership in 2009-10 being Rossi and Nilmar, they never started together in the group stage. Rossi and Ruben were the preferred pairing for home matches, while Altidore and Ruben started in Zagreb, Altidore and Nilmar in Greece, and Rossi and Ruben in Belgium.
Garrido also started Marcos Gullon (in Belgium) and Jeff Montero (in Zagreb). He clearly experimented with lineups on the road, hoping to get a point out of those matches, and saved his stronger lineups for the home ties. Once we got to the knockout rounds, then the lineups were stronger, and more similar, home and away.
Comparison to this year's group:
Our 2014-15 group looks tougher, and it will be more difficult for Marcelino to manage our progress, inasmuch as there is another team from an elite league (the Bundesliga) in it. Neither of the other teams in the group have the European pedigree Villarreal and Gladbach have. We have to figure Gladbach should qualify from this group, and with our recent injuries, I'd put them as favorites to finish first.
We do have the same away-home-home-away-home-away schedule as before. If we can win 3 of the 4 matches against Apollon and Zurich, we should be fine; I don't expect Gladbach to do any worse than that, so 9 points would see us through even if we lost the other three. In some respects I think playing Gladbach first is fine; we don't need to win this, and it will enable a lot of our youngsters to get a taste of Europe before playing Zurich and Limassol in El Madrigal, which are must-win matches for us.
Regardless, there is something about playing in the European competitions--even the Europa League--that isn't duplicated anywhere else. We'll feel some of it beginning this week--if we make it through to the knockout rounds, then the atmosphere gets even more special. Endavant Villarreal!!