Villarreal qualified for the knockout rounds of the Europa League with a 2-1 win over Steaua Bucharest at El Madrigal. Nicola Sansone and Manu Trigueros provided the Villarreal tallies, with Achim scoring for Bucharest.
Villarreal played well in the first half and should have put the game away by the break, but Cedric Bakambu couldn’t produce a goal from two good chances. After Sansone had put the Yellow Submarine in front in the 16th minute, Mario Gaspar providing the fine cross, Bakambu couldn’t get a free header down and on target from another fine Mario feed. Super Mario himself had a chance to score for us with five minutes left in the half, but his shot skinned the outside of the far post. And just before the break, Bakambu had a gilt-edged chance, but couldn’t round the keeper while in alone with him. One piece of bad news: Mateo Musacchio had to be subbed off with a potential hamstring injury.
HT Villarreal 1-0 Steaua Bucharest
Even with the lead, Villarreal fans had to be nervous with the number of missed chances. Steaua had done nothing offensively in the first half, but they equalized in the 54th minute. Gabriel Tamas escaped a sliding Jaume Costa along the right sideline and crossed the ball perfectly for Vlad Achim, who had just entered the match, to head home. Steaua nearly took the lead when Victor Ruiz slipped and let a Bucharest player in, but Asenjo made a fine save.
Yet, if Tamas had been the hero earlier, he turned goat with 11 minutes left. Already on a yellow card for pulling back Jaume Costa, he used his hands to grab Roberto Soriano (which was really dumb, since the challenge came in our half of the pitch) and the referee showed him a second yellow.
Even down a man, Steaua had to press forward since only a win would suffice for them. With five minutes left Bakambu came off for Rodri, and with Santos Borré having replaced Sansone earlier, Villarreal went to a 4-2-3-1 with Manu as a number 10. And it was Trigueros who gave Villarreal the lead with a brilliant chip off the crossbar and past Nita with two minutes left.
Steaua now had to throw everything up front, and the Yellows could have added more, not that it really mattered. Bruno, Roberto Soriano (twice) and Santos Borré all had chances for a third goal.
FT Villarreal 2-1 Steaua Bucharest
Sighs of relief all around El Madrigal (it turned out we would have qualified with a draw, as Osmanlispor won 2-0 in their match) but the problems we’ve had of late—failing to convert our chances, and going off the boil for long periods in the second half after playing well early—were still evident.
Steaua players were not happy with the cheap second yellow; the German referee seemed more interested in penalizing shirt-pulling than late or unsafe challenges, to be honest. This match could have been 3-0 at halftime and essentially over, Steaua could have won it the way we played much of the second half. In the end, a happy result, and we will wait to see who we play in the round of 32 knowing we have to up our game to progress much farther in this competition.