Before this season kicked off, if I had told you Villarreal would be playing Alavés with one team in third place, just a point off the league lead, and the other was in 16th place, just a point above the relegation zone, I’m sure everyone would have figured the Yellow Submarine would be the team in third. Not so.
Alavés, like Levante, changed coaches last season when relegation looked imminent; Abelardo, who had coached Sporting Gijon for a couple of years without great success, took over and guided them to safety. And like Levante and Paco López, Abelardo has kept going strongly in the first quarter of this season.
Depending on how you count, Alaves are something between 12th and 15th when you look at budget and roster value, but the little Basque club is punching well above its weight. An opening loss to Barcelona and a draw with Betis didn’t suggest much would happen, but that’s been followed by a run of five wins in seven matches, with the only loss being a 2-1 defeat at Levante.
Alavés is a bit like Villarreal: they have struggled a bit at home against teams that aren’t terribly offensive minded away from home (Getafe, Betis), but have done well on the road against teams that want to attack at home (Celta, Rayo).
Sure, they benefited from Real Madrid’s struggles with form in their last home match, but they played well and took advantage of opportunities too. The big question is whether their counterattacking style will pay off over an entire season. With Alavés only averaging 10 shots per match, they probably aren’t going to have too many matches like that against Rayo (5 goals in 11 shots).
Abelardo has been setting his team up in a 4-3-3 and we may well see ex-Villarreal players Wakaso Mubarak and Tomas Pina in the center of that lineup. Both are excellent tacklers and ball-winners (and in Wakaso’s case, tend to get carded a lot; he’s on four yellows in seven appearances).
A key in this one for Villarreal will be to play to the end. Alavés have scored three goals deep in injury time, two game winners (vs. Valladolid and Madrid) and a game-tying goal against Getafe. If their matches ended at the end of regulation, they’d be on 12 points, not 17!
Villarreal will apparently still be without Victor Ruiz, so....