Since the summer of 2002, Villarreal has been a regular visitor to European competition—the late, unlamented Intertoto Cup, the Champions League, or the UEFA Cup/Europa League. Apart from 2006-07 (Maribor defeating Villarreal in the first round of the Intertoto Cup) Villarreal has always progressed past the first stage of the competition.
The Europa League has always been a good playground for Villarreal; four appearances (not counting the predecessor UEFA Cup), and four qualifications for the group stages. Two semifinal appearances, one elimination in the round of 16, one in the round of 32 (Wolfsburg, 2009-10).
But this year, Villarreal has struggled mightily. Some of the blame can be laid in rotations, especially in goal—Andres Fernandez let in a couple of howlers—but even when putting out a strong XI against a second-division Swiss team, Villarreal failed to put the game away and ended up holding on for a point. We have not put together a good 90 minutes in this competition yet.
Steaua Bucharest, our opponents, haven’t scored away from home in the group; they drew 0-0 at Zurich and lost 2-0 at Osmanlispor. In Romania Villarreal scored after nine minutes, gave up a comedically bad goal on twenty minutes off a corner, and that was it.
Steaua’s only chance to get to the round of 32 is with a win, but given their lack of scoring punch on the road, I expect the visitors will probably aim to keep things tight and look to score off a defensive error or a set piece, so it’s really up to Villarreal to take the initiative. The longer the match remains scoreless and the large home crowd is restless, the more Steaua will fancy their chances to steal a win late.
Villarreal will have Bruno Soriano available for the match, according to Escribá, but not Cheryshev or Castillejo. Chery in particular could be a real loss, as he was just starting to round into form with a torrid half in Switzerland.
The key for Villarreal will be—must be—scoring. In the league, Villarreal has scored only three times in their last five matches and has been shut out three times in a row—this all coming after our 5-0 win over Celta.
Our finishing has been woeful (against Zurich, especially) but Escribá has been critical of the lack of clear chances we’ve created too—and certainly that was true when we played Steaua earlier. It really hasn’t mattered who the two strikers have been (and maybe part of the problem is Escriba can’t make up his mind which two to play). Without Chery and Samu, it will probably be Soriano and Jona dos Santos on the wings, though I suppose there is a slight chance Sansone could be moved to a wing and we could play Pato and Bakambu as the two strikers.
Group Situation: Basically, all four teams know if they win, they are into the round of 32. Osmanlispor only require a draw to qualify. Villarreal could make it with a draw, but it depends on the result in the other match.
Villarreal will qualify with a win. They could qualify with a draw, too, as long as Zurich either loses or has a draw where they score less than three goals more than Villarreal does in its draw. I hope that’s clear.
Zurich will qualify if they defeat Osmanlispor. If that happens, Villarreal would have to win to qualify as well.
Steaua will qualify if they win (they have no chance if they lose).
Prediction: Could be anything. Could be we come out and get a couple of goals early, and the big crowd cheers us on to a 3-0 win. But it probably won’t be that easy....maybe 2-1 or 1-0, with a lot of nailbiting going on.