Javi Calleja’s men are riding the high of progression in the Europa League with two wins over Zenit, as well as the defeat of Levante last weekend. Calleja is probably right that this one game will not determine our fate, but winning it would certainly give us a sense of comfort heading into the international break.
Rayo Vallecano, on the other hand, are struggling. Their only win in their first 13 matches in the league was a victory over Huesca; they did have a good month of January with wins over Levante, Valladolid and Celta in succession, and beat Alavés away. But since then, they’ve had six straight losses. They haven’t been blowouts; three 2-1’s, a 1-0, a 2-0, and a 3-1; but they’ve been losses nonetheless.
Manager Michel, who took over in February 2017 and led Rayo to promotion last season, is continually supposed to be getting the sack after each loss but is still here. He’s been a man of many formations this season; he’s most often used a 4-1-4-1 with Raúl de Tomás as the lone striker, but has also been using a lot of three-man backlines and even a 5-4-1 a couple of times. Regardless, the players have been mostly the same.
Rayo’s roster has a lot of familiar names in the “I wonder whatever happened to....” variety on it. Gaël Kakuta, ex-Chelsea? He’s here. Bébé, Manchester United’s signing, sight unseen? He’s here too. Oscar Trejo (Mallorca, Sporting, Toulouse); Gorka Elustondo (Real Sociedad); Mario Suarez (Mallorca, Atleti, Valencia)....they’re all playing for the Lightning. But too many of those names are in their late twenties/early thirties and aren’t reproducing the form of their younger years.
Rayo have three wins on the road all season, and each by 1 goal to nil. On the road, they’ve set up much more defensively so have allowed only 19 goals in 13 matches, but they’ve only scored 9.
They have scored two goals away exactly once (2-2 at La Real in September). So the lesson for Villarreal is clear: score. (And feel free to score late; Rayo are not good at holding off opponents in the last 30 minutes of matches). De Tomás is clearly their danger man with 11 goals but controlling passes to him from players like Trejo will be a key. Elustondo is their only player out.
Villarreal have long-term injuries (Bruno, Manu Trigueros), and the recuperating Javi Fuego and Daniele Bonera. And, Mario Gaspar is suspended for this one. I expect to see a lineup like: Asenjo; Alvaro, Funes Mori, Ruiz; Miguelón, Iborra, Morlanes, Santi, Pedraza; Toko Ekambi and Gerard.
In the first match Samu Chukwueze had a goal and was a key player, and if the game opens up and we need offense, expect him to come on along with Pablo Fornals.
Trivia: Javi Calleja played in the only home loss we’ve suffered against Rayo (and it was a doozy, 5-1 in the first game of the 2000-2001 season). And, Javier Espinosa (now with FC Twente, btw) scored his only league goal for Villarreal against Rayo in a 4-2 win in September 2014 (Luciano Vietto scored the last two goals, the first two he scored for us in the league).
Prediction: I have to think recent form means something here. 3-1 Villarreal.