Why Villarreal Are Starting To Get That Sinking Feeling Again

Sports

The Yellow Submarine are one of only six clubs whose salary limit is over €100m: they’re too good to go down. As in 2012

Villarreal midfielder Pablo Fornals in action with Huesca’s Ezequiel Avila. Photograph: Javier Blasco/EPA

Sergio Asenjo just sat there shaking his head. The goalkeeper who has suffered four cruciate knee ligament tears – three in his right knee, one in his left – was in no hurry to get up this time. “I want them to see what’s at stake in our eyes,” Villarreal’s new manager Luis García Plaza had said before the game against Huesca and they could certainly see it in Asenjo’s eyes now that it was all over. Slowly, he stood, went to the end where maybe 100 fans gathered stunned, silently handed over his shirt and turned to walk away, beaten at the last. This was supposed to be a new beginning, but it had ended like that.

Asenjo saved a penalty and nine other shots on Sunday evening. On a personal level, it had been the best game of his career, he admitted – a career cut short whenever he was on the verge of a Spain call. He was “simply spectacular”, one report said after a match with “three penalties, one red card and a great keeper”. He’d saved from Gonzalo Melero, Moi Gómez, Cucho Hernández, Pablo Insua and Jorge Pulido, and kept on saving all the way to the final minute. That time, though, the ball came back out and Samuele Longo scored, the ball rebounding in off him. It was the 94th minute and Huesca had made it 2-2 against Villarreal. Which might not sound that bad, but as Villarreal’s manager admitted, the situation is “jodida”.

Screwed up.

Villarreal hadn’t been able to beat Huesca, the team that has won just once all season – and that was back in mid-August, 15 matches ago. Villarreal had gone to the ground where the home side had never won, had scored just four, and sat bottom, seven points from safety, and conceded twice in one afternoon. Yes, Villarreal had gone down to 10 men, but they had not deserved to win either – 28 shots they faced, Asenjo the outstanding player. Worse, they’re the team seven points away, a solitary place and a solitary point from the drop. By Monday night, they could be in the bottom three, the risk of relegation a reality.

“It’s sad, but we have to look down,” said the captain, Mario Gaspar.

It seems unthinkable but he knows; he’s been here before. Villarreal have Alfonso Pedraza, Carlos Bacca, Gerard Moreno, Santi Cazorla, Manu Trigueros, Samu Chukwueze, and Pablo Fornals and they’re one of only six clubs whose salary limit is over €100m: they’re too good to go down. But then they were supposed to be too good to go down in 2012 when they had Bruno, Marcos Senna, Cani, Diego López, Gonzalo Rodríguez, Giuseppe Rossi, Borja Valero and Mario. They went down then; the crisis still came, that perfect ecosystem disintegrating, the club losing their way, their own sense of identity: they went through three managers, each less suited than the last, and were relegated on the final day.

This is not the same, the structure is different – lessons were learnt and some at the club think relegation ended up being good for them, a chance to start again – and the very fact that there are parallels helps them take this seriously, not just assume they’ll be OK, a warning from history. But being here at all concerns. Sixteen weeks into the season, they have 15 points – the same amount they had at this stage in 2011-12.

That was when Villarreal sacked Juan Carlos Garrido, the B team coach who took over the first team. This time, they sacked Javier Calleja, the former player and youth coach promoted to the first team. And the man who has just replaced him is Luis García Plaza, B team coach in 2005-06, the man who spent the first 10 years of his career on the east coast – Altea, Villajoyosa, Villarreal B, Elche, Benidorm and Levante, with whom he won promotion – and the last four years in the Emirates and China.

Huesca’s Ezequiel Avila keeps tabs on Manu Trigueros. Photograph: Javier Blasco/EPA

“I’m proud to be back,” he said when he was presented last week, but he knows he is back for a reason. There has been something about Villarreal that just hasn’t convinced this season. Although they have had plenty of the ball, they’ve been exposed, vulnerable: only Girona and Levante have allowed more shots. As one player admitted, they were a “banda” – a bit of a mess, like a bunch of blokes just thrown together. They were “green”, naive. There was a lack of clarity, tactics, an idea, the mechanics of a team. Put simply, they were, in one insider’s words, “muy malos”. And as results slipped away, so too did belief.

Which is where García comes in: it is his job to make them aware of the reality and able to confront it, taking over a team with just three wins. “I don’t want a huge revolution, but I do want to put in fresh people who can help us,” he said when he was presented last Monday, and the early signs are four-four-two, a little more physicality, if not yet much more football. “I want to bring out what the players have inside them,” he said. “The quality is there, but we have to be a team and build confidence.” On Thursday, his first game, Villarreal got through to the next round of the Europa League, but Sunday was more significant, his first league match. A “final”, he called it: a relegation battle at Huesca, the tiniest team in the first division, hard though that is to assimilate.

Almost as hard as it was to take the late goal they conceded, the draw they gave up in Aragón. “It slipped through our fingers; that’s difficult to accept, because it shouldn’t have escaped us. We have to learn to play those final minutes because we’re playing for our lives,” García insisted. Even the old cliche was disproven: new manager, guaranteed victory, they say. As for García, what he said was a warning: “We have a long, hard season ahead,” he warned. No one expected that, no one was really ready for it, but they know that now. Eventually, Asenjo lifted himself off the Alcoraz pitch. “A win would have been good for us mentally,” he said, finally on his feet again. “We’re not used to this. Five years in a row in Europe and look at the situation we’re in now.”

Talking points

 Spain did something not very Spain this weekend: all of the top six won. And that includes Getafe for whom Jorge Molina, 36 and getting better, scored the only goal.

 Just another week. Weird though it might sound, Barcelona weren’t always that good but then as José Luis Morales put it: “They have Messi.” And Messi was, well, Messi. Three goals, two assists, and a 5-0 victory. (Two assists that could have been four or five, with better finishing). So, so far ahead of the rest, Messi has already reached double figures for goals andassists, something he has done for 12 of the past 13 league seasons. That said, the best moment came from Luis Suárez, when he helped make the fourth. He and Messi have 25 goals, which is more than all Madrid’s players put together.

 Sevilla are still there. After they beat Girona, Wissam Ben Yedder put up a picture of him and Pablo Sarabia, saying: “Name me a better pair. I’ll wait.” It could be a long wait.

 Even though Rodrigo finally scored 17 hours later, Valencia drew. Just for a change, like. Marcelino complained about the VAR after it gave Eibar a penalty – over a minute after the handball actually happened. “All I know is that when the VAR began I was the first to moan about it,” said his opposite number José Luis Mendilíbar, “and now it seems everyone is climbing on board.”

 Two weeks running Thibaut Courtois has rescued Real Madrid with saves in the dying minutes to secure unconvincing 1-0 victories – first against Huesca, now against Rayo. There were only 55,229 people at the Bernabéu on Saturday and those who are staying away, more than at any other time for years, didn’t miss much. “Madrid bore,” said the headline in Marca … and in AS.

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