Villarreal continue their Basque journey—after Osasuna (away) and Alavés (home)—and before welcoming Athletic Club to the Cerámica on Sunday— it’s time for us to visit Eibar! The little club that could will host us in their compact Iparua ground. Their pitch is 103m by 65m (ours is 105 by 68, which is a common size) but it seems even smaller, with the stands up against it and a large apartment block looming behind the main stand. It holds maybe 8,000 at most; originally the league claimed they needed to have a 12,000 minimum capacity, but that’s pretty much impossible and Eibar don’t seem to care too much, and apparently the league doesn’t either.
As for the team that plays here? Eibar surprised everyone by winning successive promotions in 2013 and 2014; they finished 18th in the Primera and would have been relegated in the 2014-15 season, but Elche were demoted for financial reasons so Eibar stayed up. And they’ve stayed up comfortably since, with a best finish of 9th in 2017-18, falling to 12th last year.
But, there are signs this year is going to be more of a struggle. Typically, Eibar has gotten off to a good start and then tailed off, but this season they have only 9 points from their first 10 matches. It was a busy summer for Eibar in the transfer market—Joan Jordan went to Sevilla, Ruben Peña came to Villarreal, and Marc Cucurella was repurchased by Barcelona and then lent to Getafe. They did bring in a couple of players from Depor—midfielder Edu Esposito, striker Quique Gonzalez, and also brought in defender Bigas from Las Palmas, and got Takahashi Inui from Betis (he’d been loaned to Alavés).
The core of the team, though, is the wrong side of thirty. Striker Charles (35); midfielders Diop (33), Orellana (33) , and Pedro León (32); defenders Ramis (35) and Arbilla (32). experienced, certainly, but a lot of their younger guys have moved on.
Eibar, especially at home, will work for every ball, they will press, they will be strong in the air and will be dangerous in set pieces. However, that very intensity leaves them open to through balls and they don’t control the match well, both things Villarreal hopes to exploit.
Villarreal have some injury concerns, and if ever we were going to make some squad rotations, this is it, right? With a match coming on Sunday? Alberto Moreno is injured again, so Quintillà will play at left back; Mario might replace Peña, who traveled with the team but missed the last match due to a knee problem. And Manu Morlanes is also injured.
I’m thinking this may be a match for Funes Mori to start with Pau, and I’d probably bring Samu Chukwueze in and give Santi Cazorla a break, too, though making changes really depends on whether Calleja feels individual players need rest. It’s hard to justify changing a lot when things are working.
All-time record: Villarreal have won only once at Iparua in 12 tries—that was a 2-1 win in April 2016 with goals from Adrián and Soldado. Last year we played a forgettable 0-0 draw (this was while Calleja was gone).
Interestingly, Calleja did coach Villarreal in a midweek match in February 2017; we lost 1-0 and fielded a team with Roger martinez and Enes Unal as strikers; Dani Raba, Javi Fuego (!) and Antonio Rukavina all started as well. (The rotations didn’t work, as we lost our next match at home to Girona with our regular lineup). So does that history give us any indication as to what to expect tomorrow?
Prediction: Villarreal have won in Espanyol and defeated Alavés at home, two unusual events against a couple of our bogey clubs. Can we make it three-for-three and win in Iparua? I’m going to go for a 2-2 draw, mostly because I think Eibar is a lot like Osasuna at home, a tough team to beat. But hopefully we’ll come home with three points. Endavant!!