Villarreal host Glasgow Rangers in our first group match; although Rangers are seeded fourth in our group, this is expected to be a not-so-easy tie.
Our opponents: A storied name in football, of course, but the days are long gone when Scottish teams were major forces in European competition. Scotland is only ranked 23rd in the UEFA list of European leagues, behind Belarus and just ahead of Cyprus. Still, with Rangers and Celtic both making it to the EL group stage, there could be a mini-renaissance going on.
Much of the excitement at Rangers centers around Steven Gerrard and his appointment to the coaching job in May of this year. They have 8 points from 5 matches so far in the league, good for fourth at the moment, and successfully navigated their way past Shkupi, Osijek, Maribor and Ufa to get into the EL group draw.
Rangers line up in a 4-3-3 which can become a 4-1-4-1 without the ball. Northern Ireland international Kyle Lafferty is their key player up front, especially with Alfredo Morelos being out. Gareth McAuley, Ryan Jack and Jamie Murphy are all injured, Morelos and Jon Flanigan picked up red cards in the last match against Ufa and are suspended. Expect them to be physical in defense and press our team as much as they can, and look to create turnovers and chances in our end of the pitch.
Trivia: Midfielder Lassana Coulibaly was a teammate of Toko Ekambi at Angers last season. And famous TV chef Gordon Ramsay is often described as having played for Rangers, but in reality he was only a trialist and only got a couple of run-outs against non-league sides.
More trivia, and past history: Villarreal met Rangers in the Champions League Round of 16 in February and March 2006. We drew 2-2 at Ibrox and 1-1 at El Madrigal to go through on away goals. Amazingly enough, two members of that Villarreal side (neither played, they were on the bench) are still with us: Javi Calleja, now our coach, and Mariano Barbosa, a backup keeper now, as then.
Villarreal: The Yellow Submarine have not exactly impressed so far, and injuries to Santy Caceres, Bruno Soriano and Javi Fuego have left us shorthanded in midfield. Word from the training ground is Ramiro Funes Mori, who as far as I know has never played in midfield, is being tried there, either in the pivote in a 4-4-2 or (another rumor) in some sort of 3-5-2 formation. We shall see.
We do know Battling Jaume Costa will miss this one due to a red card carrying over from last season so Alfonso Pedraza will presumably play somewhere.
I can’t quite wrap my head around a 3-5-2 with Funes Mori in the middle, but I guess it could be something like Mario (or Miguelon), Ruiz, Pedraza; Santi Cazorla, Fornals, Funes Mori, Trigueros, Layun; Toko Ekambi and Bacca.
4-4-2 would see Ruiz partnered by Alvaro, and one of Fornals or Trigueros (probably Fornals) drop to the bench. And maybe Gerard instead of Bacca.
Either way, expect Andrés Fernandez to start in goal.
Prediction: The fact Rangers are from a league we have heard of doesn’t change the fact that the group matches in the EL are usually decided less by reputation and who should win based on seedings, than who plays well against opponents they don’t really know. Which tends to be a reflection of current form.
Villarreal have generally done fine when they have had their first match at home, but we tend to make heavy weather of group qualifying, even though we get there in the end. I figure one of two things can happen: either our attacking tandem of Toko Ekambi and Gerard, which looked so good in preseason, gets untracked and we win by a couple of goals, or (more likely) this is a tight, physical game where individual errors can create goals. In which case, 1-1 looks likely.