‘Villarreal are in the knockout stages of the Champions League.’
Even after reaching the semi-finals in 2006, and winning the Europa League last season, this is still a phrase that plenty still can’t comprehend.
The tiny town of Vila-Real played host to Italian giants Juventus in their first Champions League knockout tie in 13 years, and despite going 1-0 down within a minute, courtesy of Dusan Vlahovic, the Yellow Submarine equalised and put in a good performance, and there is all to play for in the second leg.
With the scores level and no away goals, this effectively means the first leg is void.
This will be 90 massive minutes, with a coveted place in the quarter-finals at stake, and there is genuine belief that Villarreal can once again, upset the odds against one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
It would be some scalp if Unai Emery can outwit Max Allegri…
How could Villarreal line up?
In the absence of Gerard Moreno in recent weeks, Villarreal have mostly used Giovani Lo Celso and Arnaut Danjuma as strikers - which suits neither of them really - but there is hope that Gerard could be back in time for the crucial away leg.
Raul Albiol looks to have shaken off his knock to return, meaning the only absentees are the longer term injuries to Alberto Moreno, Paco Alcacer and Ruben Pena.
Albiol and Gerard returning is game-changing – Villarreal’s attack with Gerard as a centre-forward brings a completely different dynamic compared to the shape with two false nines, and could help Danjuma play in his most comfortable position.
There are plenty of decisions to be made – Etienne Capoue missed the win over Celta Vigo with a back strain but could be back to partner Dani Parejo, who scored in the first leg, in midfield.
All signs point towards a 4-4-2. If Gerard is thrown straight in after his injury, then it looks like being a very strong XI indeed.
Potential XI: Rulli; Foyth, Albiol, Pau, Pedraza; Chukwueze, Parejo, Capoue, Danjuma; Lo Celso, Gerard.
This looks very attacking on paper, and Emery may opt for a more conservative approach, and with the form Manu Trigueros is in, the veteran could start on the left side.
Emery will have studied Juventus for hours on end in the last few weeks, and seek to counter any of their main strengths. Albiol returning will help deal with what is an aerially dominant Juventus front two, and the opposition may play a similar shape to Villarreal.
What will Juventus do?
Massimiliano Allegri has used a number of different formations in recent weeks, but it is almost certain that both Dusan Vlahovic and Alvaro Morata will start for the hosts.
Paulo Dybala missed the first leg, but Allegri has confirmed his availability for Wednesday’s tie.
“Chiellini, Dybala and Bernardeschi will be available. Hopefully, we’ll win in 90 minutes. Otherwise, we’ll need extra time. Substitutions will be important,” Allegri stated at his pre-match press conference.
“Vlahovic will play, Morata is in good form and he’s always had quality. He was always criticised despite playing in a position that was not his natural one. I am happy with him, he is playing well with Vlahovic, he has more freedom on the pitch.”
Morata is a player Villarreal will be familiar with: often partnering Gerard at Euro 2020, Morata has scored against Villarreal for both Real and Atletico Madrid in the past.
Two strikers with such quality in the air could prove problematic for Villarreal, and it is likely that Allegri will set the team up to put a lot of crosses into the box. Expect Juan Cuadrado to play on the right, with Adrien Rabiot in the ‘Trigueros role.’
How should Villarreal approach the occasion?
Unai Emery is no stranger to knockout football, but his record at this stage in the Champions League is shoddy at best.
Many will recall the famous ‘Remontada’ when he was at PSG, but going into the second leg at 1-1 instead of 4-0 up requires an entirely different approach.
“We’ve arrived [in Italy] with a lot of desire. But they’re also going to want to win from the first minute to the 90th,” Emery said.
“It’s going to be a game in which many things are going to happen and we have to be prepared to try and maintain greater control than them. But they’ve not lost in Serie A for months; this is a team accustomed to living under pressure to win and they win a lot.”
From his comments, it seems Emery will treat Juventus with a lot of respect, and given the difference in size and resources, this is probably the correct approach.
Juventus haven’t been themselves for the last two seasons, after winning 8 Serie A titles in a row, but their players have significantly more nous in an occasion like this than Villarreal’s - Albiol aside, maybe.
The longer it stays 0-0, the better for Villarreal, and keeping it tight as long as possible, frustrating the home crowd and opening up pockets of space, may be the way to go.
Villarreal survived an early goal in the first leg, but away from Estadio de la Ceramica, a second dance with the devil may not have a favourable outcome against Vlahovic and co.
Manuel Locatelli against Dani Parejo in the midfield battle will be one to watch. These are two top-quality progressive central midfielders, both capable of dictating and deciding games.
If Parejo delivers a similar performance to his fantastic first leg display, where he was silky in the middle and scored the equaliser, then Villarreal really do have a chance to secure what would be a famous victory.