Villarreal have left Castellón Airport for Salzburg, Austria, and the second leg of their finely-balanced round of 32 matchup against FC Salzburg. It's supposed to be chilly--just above freezing--but no precipitation is expected.
The Red Bull Arena seats just over 30,000 and lies about three miles west of the city center. There is a casino--a converted castle--next to it, so I suppose anyone who has time on their hands before the match can try a flutter!
This is as good a place as any to briefly review the somewhat controversial history of this Salzburg club. Any of you familiar with the story of Wimbledon's change to Milton Keynes Dons, and the formation of a 'fans' club', AFC Wimbledon, will see some parallels here.
I am probably not the best person to write about this, since I have never drunk a can of the stuff, but the company behind the Red Bull energy drink is actually based in a tiny village near Salzburg. Their marketing strategy has been built around sports, and in 2005 the company (privately held, with its two main owners worth over $5 billion each) decided to buy the local football team, SV Austria Salzburg. This club had enjoyed some success, losing the 1994 UEFA Cup Final to Inter Milan, and had some success domestically as well.
Many fans didn't like this, especially since Red Bull changed the team colors from the traditional purple and white to red and white and portrayed themselves as a brand new club. A group of them formed a new SV Austria Salzburg, which began play in 2006 and has risen through the divisions (I believe they're now in the third tier).
So...now on to the match preview proper!
What we discovered in the first leg was that Red Bull was a finely coached and prepared team that wasn't afraid to attack and give up some opportunities for the opponents to score in doing so. Two magnificent Asenjo saves kept them off the scoresheet in open play, but whether Villarreal can do that again I rather doubt.
Initially, Salzburg were rather too dependent on Jonathan Soriano, I felt, but as the match went on their team play was much better.
Salzburg rested almost all their key players on Sunday, though Ilsanker, Bruno and Sabitzer all came on about the same time as Cheryshev and Vietto did for Villarreal.
Like Villarreal (especially in Bruno's absence), Salzburg are a young side. Jonathan Soriano and Leitgeb turn 30 this year, but pretty much everyone else is in their 20's. Will they be nervous in front of the big home crowd, or will they respond with a win?
Last year at this same stage of the competition, Red Bull scored three first-half goals in Amsterdam, won their first leg 3-0 against Ajax, and coasted to a 3-1 home win, with all the goals coming in the second half. In the round of 16, they drew 0-0 against Basel away, but in spite of being a man up almost the entire match and taking an early lead, it was the Swiss who won through, 2-1. We'd be happy if that happened again (the away win, I mean, not the red card).
Expected Villarreal XI: Asenjo; Mario (or Rukavina if he's not fit), Musacchio, Ruiz, Jaume Costa; Jonathan dos Santos, Pina, Trigueros, Cheryshev; Vietto and Uche.
I would not be too surprised to see Bailly instead of Ruiz, and only slightly more surprised to see Sergio Marcos instead of Pina.
Keys to the match: Who scores first has a big advantage, and if Salzburg can quickly find their rhythm and create an early goal, Villarreal will be chasing the game. However, Salzburg isn't the sort of team to shut up shop protecting the away goal advantage. Villarreal will get chances to score as well, and it's imperative at least one--maybe two--get converted.
Villarreal need to defend set pieces very well--Ramalho should have scored off a first-half corner last time--and cannot afford to pick up lots of cards and/or concede a penalty.
Prediction: I can see this going a lot of different ways. I'd say the advantage is about 60-40 to Salzburg, largely because they're at home and the weather conditions are not what VIllarreal is used to. I would like to see us get through this, somehow I think it might be 2-1 Salzburg at the end of regulation. After that, who knows.