Villarreal host Astana on Thursday, and if there is such a thing as a must-win match in September, this might be it. Not so much because of Astana itself, but because Villarreal has made a hash out of qualifying for the round of 32 the last few years, and we need to change that.
Here’s a quick look at our group opponents:
Astana: As one of my colleagues noted, they are tough to beat in Kazakhstan (partly because of the travel issue). They are one of two teams far-and-away ahead of the rest of their league, and they are in the midst of their season, so presumably their coach knows his best XI and will be putting it out there. At the same time, few of their players have experience in even middling European leagues. They look to be the sort of club that could cause Villarreal problems on the counter, with speedy players like Kabananga and Twumasi up front, but their defense has got to be pretty suspect. It’s not like they made it here by blowing out anyone—they barely defeated Legia Warsaw and Latvian club Spartaks in the Champions League qualifying rounds, before going down 5-0 at Celtic which ended any hope they had of progressing.
Maccabi Tel Aviv: One of the few football clubs that’s perhaps more famous for its basketball cousin, they are more of a known quantity: their coach is Jordi Cruyff, and they do have a number of players with European experience, including an Icelandic striker (Kjartansson) who they bought from Malmö for over €3m. The Ligat Ha’Al season has just started, and it’s a reasonably competitive league. (Also note their home jerseys are yellow, so yet another chance for our second kit.....)
Slavia Prague: We seem to be working our way through the Czech teams: Sparta Prague, Viktoria Plzen, and now these guys, who made it past BATE in their first playoff round, but fell to APOEL in the Champions League playoffs, the extra letter in the acronym evidently proving too much for them. We’ll see how they do here. Their most recognizable player is 34 year-old Halil Altintop; the Turkish international has a twin brother, Hamit, who was with Real Madrid (hardly played) and Bayern Munich before that. Halil played in Germany for many years also.
It’s a tough group to handicap. The last time we were in a group with a Czech club (Viktoria Plzen) they finished fourth; then again, Astana finished fourth in their group a year ago. I would probably figure Maccabi Tel Aviv is likely to be our stiffest competition, so if Villarreal can pick up a win at home against Astana and a draw away in Israel on the 28th, that should put us in good position to advance. But that is why you play the games!!!