After five wins on the trot in La Liga, something had to give for Villarreal at the Ciutat de Valencia. But not against the colista in a ground that has always treated the Submarine kindly? Not on a weekend when Real Madrid and Barcelona had tough away matches? Believe it.
The end of the winning streak came after 70 minutes of futility without even a shot, let alone on target. And playing with ten men for nearly an hour after Bojan Jokic earned an early bath in spot duty – maybe the last he sees of the pitch for a while. But after a topsy-turvy weekend in Spain where the top six could not muster a win, Villarreal remains in pole position at the second international break. Not bad.
Let’s start with the lineup. With Bruno Soriano returning to the Spanish national team (and sadly nursing a knee injury that has kept him out of the final squad), Marcelino García Toral gave the armband to Mario Gaspar (who then earned his first La Roja call-up!). The defense looked typical save Jokic for Jaume Costa at left back, while the pivote was as we saw it in Bruno’s absence.
But on the wings, Marce went with the out-of-sorts Samuel García and youngster Alfonso Pedraza. No Samu Castillejo due to weary legs, and no Denis Suárez due to injury. With Leo Baptistao running on empty, Nahuel Leiva moved up front to partner with Roberto Soldado. No shortage of quality, but no familiarity or cohesion in the bunch. And it showed.
To start the match, a sign of things to come – Jokic was booked in the third minute. The opening forays were mostly at arm’s length from the areas, so it took a mistake to produce a clear chance. And it was stalwart center back Víctor Ruiz with the gaffe, but full French international Alphonse Areola (congratulations!) stood his ground to keep the match level.
Then the key moment: on a yellow card, Jokic took down Iván López. López unfortunately suffered a serious shoulder injury, but the damage on the day was done. The referee had no choice but to show Jokic his marching orders, and the league leaders were down to ten men before halftime. On came Costa for Nahuel, isolating Soldado further. And only a pair of excellent Areola saves took the Submarine into the dressing room on level terms.
The second half started with some promise as Castillejo replaced a nondescript Alfonso. But as Villarreal continued to be ineffective on the ball, Jonathan dos Santos came on for Samuel, and Marce was out of changes. And inevitably fatigue set in for the visitors, playing their seventh match in three weeks, and Levante eventually found a goal through Deyverson. After a cross from Ghilas, the Brazilian sweetly struck a volley after ghosting past a poor Ruiz.
And that’s all she wrote. Levante 1, Villarreal 0 at full time.
Two weeks to prepare to defend top spot at home against high-flying Celta Vigo. And a number of internationals hopefully playing and returning to Vila-real safe and sound.