Villarreal have embarked on the long flight to Tel Aviv to face Maccabi Tel Aviv in the second round of our Europa League group.
Europa League group stage matches are often hard to predict since they often feature teams in leagues we seldom see, but this match is even more difficult to predict than usual because of Villarreal’s coaching change. Javi Calleja just named his second-in-command (Quique Alvarez, another ex-Villarreal player) on Tuesday, has only taken a couple of practices, and probably knows as little about our opposition as I do. Suffice it to say I would not be judging Calleja by this match, for sure, regardless of what happens.
It is interesting that Calleja has named an ex-center back as his second in command—that might be a tipoff to where he sees a problem, or could simply be that he wants to concern himself more with the offensive end of things. Regardless, we can expect Villarreal to line up in the usual 4-4-2; Maccabi played in a 3-4-3 against Slavia Prague, so I expect they’ll do that again.
Jordi Cruyff, who will always be remembered by me, at least, for his part as a player in the Alaves-Liverpool UEFA Cup Final (still the wackiest match for a trophy I’ve ever seen) is Maccabi’s coach; it’s his first coaching gig after five years as their sports director.
Maccabi does have one Spanish player, José Rodriguez, who sat on the bench for Real Madrid Castilla against Villarreal in our 2-1 win at home, so I guess I can’t say he really played against us. However, Martinique player Jean-Sylvain Babin certainly has, as he played for Granada and Sporting Gijon in the Primera from 2014-17, and for Alcorcon in the Segunda in 2012-13.
But wait, there’s more! Striker Omer Atzili spent time with Granada last year and played nine minutes against us in our 2-0 win at home. Apart form him, their main goalscorer is an Icelandic player, Kjartansson, who scored 19 goals for them in the Israeli league last season. Adding to the international strike force is American Aaron Schoenfeld (formerly of MLS’s Columbus Crew) and Englishman Nick Blackman, ex-Sheffield United, Derby County and Reading among others. I believe he’s actually on loan from Derby.
Keepers: Barbosa, Cantero and Diego Fuoli (dorsal 36).
Defenders: Mario Gaspar, Rukavina, Jaume Costa, Álvaro, Víctor Ruiz and Bonera.
Midfielders: Trigueros, Rodrigo, Soriano, Samu Castillejo, Fornals and Ramiro Guerra (dorsal 26).
Strikers: Enes Ünal, Bacca, Bakambu and Sansone.
No Cheryshev, no Semedo.
Trivia: in case you thought touring the US for friendlies was a recent thing, Maccabi Tel Aviv visited the USA in 1936, defeating a US “all-star team” in front of 50,000 spectators at the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
Prediction: Villarreal are certainly the more talented team, but will the travel and the turmoil off the pitch this week prove to be too much? I’m going to say Maccabi 1-2 Villarreal but it’s basically anyone’s guess.