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Villarreal survive early scare to see off Hadjuk Split in thrilling first-leg

An eventful first-leg in Valencia saw Villarreal win comfortably

Villarreal CF v Hajduk Split - UEFA Europa Conference League 2022/23 Play-Off First Leg Photo by Maria Jose Segovia/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Villarreal ran out 4-2 winners in their Europa Conference League playoff first-leg tie against Croatian side Hadjuk Split in a dominant performance, but it was not without drama.

The visitors took a shock lead at Estadi Ciutat De Valencia after Stipe Buik tapped home from close range after just two minutes, but their lead didn’t last long as Villarreal hit back through one of their new signings.

Jose Luis Morales, who is very familiar with Villarreal’s temporary home as a former Levante hero, equalised via a deflection in the 14th minute following some neat footwork.

Villarreal took the lead five minutes later as young star Alex Baena saw a free kick hit the back of the net via a poorly timed header from Marko Livaja, then the Yellow Submarine sank the visitors.

With 10 minutes remaining in the first half, Morales doubled his tally after latching onto a perfect through-ball from Samuel Chukwueze before sending a low finish beyond Lovre Kalinic, but the best was yet to come.

Villarreal CF v Hajduk Split : Playoff Conference League
It was a physical encounter at times.
Photo by Jose Miguel Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Captain for the night Gerard Moreno finally got in on the goalscoring action, completing a devastating counter-attack on the stroke of half-time which saw Morales and Chukwueze split the Hadjuk defence with ease.

Villarreal continued their dominance after the break, testing the goalkeeper with a number of shots before making a series of changes which saw Pau Torres, Dani Parejo, Nicolas Jackson, Giovani Lo Celso and Kiko Femenia all appear.

Hadjuk substitute Nikola Kalinic, formerly of Atletico Madrid, came on, but was withdrawn minutes later after an elbow from Aissa Mandi gave away a penalty which Fossatti converted.

Villarreal were completely dominant beyond the shock opening goal, and despite leaving the likes of Parejo and Pau Torres out of the starting XI, looked fluid in possession and lightning quick going forward.

Morales was the obvious standout performer, as the 35-year-old showed his everlasting class in the final third, but there were also strong showings from Chukwueze and Baena.

This victory sets up what should be a straightforward return leg in Split next week to reach the Conference League group stages, but never underestimate the dangers of a two-goal lead, and especially not in a fiery away atmosphere.