You knew it would happen this way: Villarreal vs. Monaco. Two teams from small cities, both promoted back to the top flight in 2013. Antonio Cordon's move north. Yellow Submarine target Valere Germain in red and white. Yellow Submarine nemesis Radamel Falcao Garcia in red and white (until Mendes says otherwise), though he may miss the first leg due to injury (he lasted only 44 minutes in the second leg against Fenerbahce).
Porto vs. Roma is perhaps the pick of the playoff round, but this tie is a close second. Monaco is no longer the freewheeling spenders of a few years ago (when Claudio Ranieri was in charge!), but there's still money at the principality club. First leg at El Madrigal in under a fortnight, with the return to follow a week later at Stade Louis II (smaller than El Madrigal).
A look at the Monaco squad:
- Goalkeeper: Croatian international Danijel Subasic has been a mainstay since Monaco's promotion campaign. Tall and decent at saving penalties -- just ask Sergio Ramos (at Euro 2016). Morgan de Sanctis played the majority of the first leg against Fener, but he's the clear no. 2 at age 39. Verdict: Probably a wash; a mistake could be devastating.
- Defense: New arrivals Jemerson (from Atletico Mineiro), Djibril Sidibe (Lille), and Benjamin Mendy (Marseille) join Italian journeyman Andrea Raggi. Same back four in both legs against Fener; hopefully it takes time to build defensive cohesion. Polish international Kamil Glik (from Torino) may enter the XI this round. Pato's movement will be crucial to exploit any weaknesses. Verdict: Slight edge to Monaco, unless Villarreal acquires another center back (paging Jardel?).
- Midfield: Winger Fabinho (a converted fullback) was on loan at Real Madrid Castilla for the famous 5-0 thrashing in Marcelino's first game in charge. Fabinho was selected for Brazil's Copa America Centenario squad but did not feature. Tiemoue Bakayoko and Thomas Lemar (combined age: 42) will battle Bruno and co. in central midfield. Nabil Dirar is the creative element (not the scariest #10), and Bernardo Silva is an up-and-coming talent on the bench. Verdict: Clear edge to Villarreal; the Sorianos must boss the tie.
- Striker: No questions here: Valere Germain and Radamel Falcao Garcia (if healthy) lead the line. Germain was on loan last season at Nice but did not sign permanently with the Cote d'Azur club. He netted a brace in the second leg against Fener and is hitting the prime of his career. We know Falcao all too well: he's back with Monaco after loans at Manchester United and Chelsea (he played 363 minutes last season; Pato played 131 on a 6-month loan in London). If Falcao is unavailable, expect Argentine Guido Carrillo (ex-Estudiantes) to pair with Germain, with former Depor loanee Ivan Cavaleiro as a bench option. Verdict: Edge to Monaco if Falcao plays; a wash otherwise. As always, finishing will decide the tie.
No one said making the Champions League group stage would be easy. And it won't be, particularly with Ruiz and Bakambu out for the first leg; their replacements Musacchio and Pato will likely not be at full fitness. But don't count out the Yellow Submarine. Endavant Villarreal!