Just 72 hours after booking their passage to the Europa League round of 16, Villarreal was back in action in a pressure cooker environment. With an eye on Wednesday's Copa del Rey semifinal return leg against Barcelona, wily manager Marcelino García Toral rang in the changes at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Talk about a response from the so-called reserves.
45 minutes in, and Real Madrid's best efforts were two deflected crosses that tapped the woodwork and some dangerous headers from set pieces. The best chance in open play fell to the visitors, and only a double save from the excellent Iker Casillas and Dani Carvajal kept Gerard Moreno, then Moi Gómez off the score sheet.
Real Madrid stepped on the accelerator as expected to start the second half, and Eric Bailly gave away a somewhat foolish penalty to sully an otherwise promising away debut in yellow. Unlike La Liga's other superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo easily slotted past the fabulous Sergio Asenjo, and the merengues were a goal to the good. But Marcelino brought on Luciano Vietto and Manu Trigueros on the hour mark (early for him) to add fuel to the visitors' attacking fire, and the results did not delay.
An active Jaume Costa was involved on the wing, but Vietto made the play to find Gerard in some space on the edge of the box. And the canterano poacher made no mistake with an impeccable shot into the bottom corner. Jonathan dos Santos then came on to bulk up the doble pivote in the face of the hosts' inevitable siege. But Asenjo stood on his head on a couple of occasions against Ronaldo, and Bailly and Mario Gaspar made key interventions.
Astonishingly, the lasting image may be Vietto's face in his hands at the final whistle. The Argentine dynamo was in alone late after getting behind Raphael Varane yet again, but with Pepe charging, the Bernabéu turf ate up the game-winning goal. Vietto was in alone with Iker, and I'd have bet the house on another winner from #7 in yellow in the Spanish capital. So close to a debut away win over Real Madrid, but a draw was no less than Villarreal deserved. A masterclass performance.
Now return the regulars: Musacchio and Ruiz in the middle, Manu the creative spark in the doble pivote, Jona somewhere in the midfield, Chery on the flank, and Vietto and Uche up front. Expect Asenjo, Costa, and Mario to retain their places - injuries to Jokic, Marín, and Rukavina leave Marcelino strapped for choice at wingback. The doubt: will the Yellow Submarine opt for a sixth attacker (Campbell, Gerard, or Gio - perhaps on the wing) or a fifth defender (Pina or Sergio Marcos)? Perhaps start with the latter and get more aggressive as the match progresses, but an early goal would really enliven Wednesday's encounter.
Suffice it to say I'm taking off Wednesday afternoon. The most glamorous match at Estadio El Madrigal since the Champions League semifinal. 90 minutes to leave it all between the lines. What a wave of confidence to ride into the match. Endavant Villarreal!