Having made it through the group stage in second place, Villarreal take on FC Salzburg in the first leg of their round-of-32 Europa League tie. (UEFA don't allow Salzburg to use the "Red Bull" in their name for sponsorship reasons, so in Europe the team is known as FC Salzburg).
Our opponents are one of seven reigning national champions in the round of 32; they won the Austrian Bundesliga in a breeze last season. But it's hard to tell how good Red Bull really are; though they've qualified for the Champions League playoffs the last three seasons, they've been eliminated by a team from Luxembourg (!) in 2012, Fenerbahce in 2013, and this year, after scraping by Karabakh, they went out to unheralded Malmo from Sweden.
The Europa League has been rather kinder to them. Perhaps because their domestic league is so lightweight, they've been able to steamroller clubs in the group stages with a first-choice lineup; they have finished their group undefeated three of the last four seasons. But once the knockout stages begin, they don't do very well.
In the 2009-10 competition we played Salzburg twice in the 2009-10 Europa League. Salzburg used a first-choice lineup and won all six group matches, before going out to Standard Liege in the round of 32; Villarreal finished second in the grooup and lost to Wolfsburg at that point. (The Villarreal-Salzburg match at El Madrigal was the last matchday of the group stage, and the Submarine 'featured' Xavi Oliva in goal, Kiko Olivas and Damien Escudero among their starters; less than 6000 showed up at El Madrigal for that Valverde gem.)
Salzburg last faced Spanish competition in the EL in the 2011-12 group stages, when they drew 2-2 with Athletic Club at San Mamés before losing 1-0 at home. That year, Salzburg lost to Metalist Kharkiv 8-1 in the round of 32.
In the 2013-14 Europa League, they defeated Ajax in the round of 32--finally getting past that point-- before losing to Basel.
On the face of it, then, Red Bull aren't a team that expects to be in it for the long haul. And they sold two key players in the January transfer window--Brazilian striker Alan, who still leads the Europa League scoresheet with eight goals, was sold to China, and midfielder Kevin Kampl went to Dortmund.
However, they still have Jonathan Soriano. The former Espanyol and Barcelona player is now 29 and already has 21 league goals this season (31 last year), still dreams of a callup to the Spanish national team, and is delighted to be facing Spanish competition.
Who else can coach Adolf Hutter call on? Well, unlike us at this point, he has a Bruno--Massimo Bruno, a Belgian striker who came over from Andelecht in the summer for €6m. And he has a young Austrian striker, Marcel Sabitzer, who has nine goals in the domestic competition.
Salzburg have played a 4-3-3 with Bruno in the middle flanked by Alan (now Sabitzer) and Soriano; they've played a 4-4-2; their only domestic match after a two-month winter break they went with a 4-2-2-2 formation. So who knows what we'll see for sure, though my guess would be 4-3-3 with Bruno, Soriano and Sabitzer all on the pitch.
If pedigree means anything, Villarreal might be favored here, as we did have a run to the Europa League semifinals in 2010-11. Still, we went out at the round of 32 the two times before that, and this is our first EL since that semifinal run.
Marcelino has named everyone healthy to the squad for tomorrow, though he'll have to drop two names o get down to 18:
- Keepers: Asenjo, Juan Carlos.
- Defenders: Mario, Rukavina, Jaume Costa, Víctor Ruiz, Dorado, Musacchio, Eric Bailly.
- Midfielders: Pina, Trigueros, Campbell, Cheryshev, Jonathan dos Santos, Moi Gómez, Sergio Marcos.
- Strikers: Vietto, Gerard, Uche, Giovani.
Because Cani and Espinosa already wore numbers 10 and 24 in the Europa League, Campbell and Bailly have to wear something else, so have gone for their birth years, 92 and 94. Weird.
Marcelino and Musacchio appeared before the press today; Marce said the team was still confident, defended his rotation policy a bit, and said Jonathan dos Santos could play both on the wing and in the pivote. Musacchio said we need to focus on ourselves; if we play well, we'll be fine.
That's pretty much true. With the loss of Bruno, and the departures of Cani and Gabriel, Villarreal has had to make changes on the fly to rediscover our optimum XI. Eric Bailly has barely met his teammates, and Joel Campbell is a bit further along, but not a lot. And with Uche having been out injured and Gio dos Santos's body evidently being occupied by an impostor--certainly not the player who scored 11 league goals for us last season--it's not surprising we've had a downturn of late.
Villarreal need to win this by two clear goals, I think, which probably means scoring 3 or 4 goals ourselves. So a key to the match is whether our guys up front have their shooting boots. A second key--this time on the Salzburg side-- is how well Salzburg can get the ball forward to their trident. Kampl was their main assist guy, and now he's gone. If Soriano gets chances, he'll convert one or more, so we have to be alert for that.
Predicted Villarreal XI: Asenjo; Mario, Ruiz, Musacchio, Jaume Costa; Moi, Jona, Trigueros, Cheryshev; Vietto and Uche.
Predicted scoreline: Villarreal 3-2 Salzburg. Uncomfortably close going into the next leg