For both Sporting Club de Portugal and Villarreal the Europa League, so often an unwelcome distraction for many of Europe’s biggest clubs, was an appreciated break from league football. Villarreal find themselves in a relegation scarp entering the final third of the season, sitting at an unthinkable 19th in La Liga.
For Sporting, the season has been littered with controversy. The fallout from club in-fighting this summer, and the resulting loss of key players, has severely hampered any true title challenge. Because of this the opportunity to compete in European competition and the prestige that comes with it helps to buoy the mood of both sets of supporters.
Villarreal opted to start the match in a hybrid version of a 3-4-2-1 shape. Carlos Bacca played up front on his own, with Pablo Fornals and Samuel Chukwueze flanking the forward on either side. Manu Trigueros, playing centrally alongside Javi Fuego, was given license to roam forward by the latter and join the attack when necessary. In terms of absences, El Submarino Amarillo had no changes enforced upon them. Sergio Asenjo, Santi Cazorla, and Vicente Iborra were all left out of manager Javier Calleja’s own accord.
Sporting and their manager Marcel Keizer were in a similar boat to their opposition, having no major injury doubts or suspensions to complicate their selections. Sporting have consistently played in a 4-3-3 shape this season, and so it continued on Thursday evening. Clinical striker Bas Dost (12 goals in the league thus far) led the line with Raphinha and Jovane Cabral flanking him on either side.
The highlight of the starting XI, and so often the man who has made the Leões tick this season, came in the shape of Bruno Fernandes. Full-backs Bruno Gaspar and Marcos Acuna gave them dynamism going forward, enabling the team to spread play when needed.
Villarreal begin with intensity, Sporting remain sloppy
The first legs of major European fixtures are so often cagey affairs, with both sides unwilling to give anything away early on. As a result, these matches can start slowly and without much action. However, Villarreal began the match very much on the front foot, seemingly shocking the home side with their intensity.
Sitting off Sporting until the ball was advanced in their penalty area, the Spanish side then pressed heavily to deny entries into their final third. Whenever the ball was rotated to the full-backs, Fornals and Chukwueze fired out to confront them, forcing the home side back into areas which were comfortable and easy to deal with. Sporting were also denied the opportunity to build through their defensive midfielder, Radoslav Petrovic, or any rotating midfielder, thanks to Carlos Bacca denying service to this area of the pitch.
It was not as a result of this shape that Villarreal scored their goal early on, but they shocked Sporting and their supporters by taking an early lead in the third minute. Following a long kick forward from goalkeeper Andres Fernandez, Chukwueze was able to latch onto the second ball, beat his man using his pace and cut back for the onrushing Pedraza.
This goal only served to cement the pressing strategy from Villarreal in the first half of frustrating and hassling the men of Sporting. The home side were able to break pressure often enough, but without the ball sticking to Bas Dost in the penalty area. The very compact Villarreal five-man defence stayed compact as nothing came of their efforts. Shots at goal largely came from distance and wide service towards Dost was dealt with expertly. Going up the other end, Villarreal remained a consistent threat thanks to clever movement off the shoulders from Bacca and the pace of his flanking wide players.
Sporting frustrated, Villarreal comfortable
With a lead to defend and little evidence of much changing in regards to resistance Villarreal manager Javier Calleja opted to continue with a mid-block, and rely on counter-attacking scenarios. While this severely hampered their potential to increase their advantage, it did give Sporting pause whenever possession was lost.
Without the ball, the aforementioned Chukwueze was often disconnected from the rest of his team. It may have seemed like he was cheating on his responsibilities, but in fact it was by design as he looked to latch onto balls through or over the top to exploit space. While this created very little directly once the final whistle was blown, it gave the Portuguese side food for thought. That is not to say that Villarreal were completely dominated defensively (45% possession). Trigueros was a constant thorn in between the lines of Sporting, and was it only until he was brought off that they adopted a true siege mentality.
Sporting spent the entire second half plotting a way to try and equalise, but in truth they showed little to no quality in order to do so. Manager Marcel Keizer clearly placed more emphasis on trying to flood Villarreal’s final third with more numbers forward. Often Sporting would have five or six players advanced into the penalty area, their midfield three given plenty of license to run off and combine with Dost.
Sporting did give their supporters hope thanks to increased focus on getting forward, however. With two chances minutes apart from another – a Dost flick requiring a magnificent save and another effort from a corner hitting the post – fans would have been forgiven for expecting a reward. Unfortunately for the home faithful, however, a late lunge from Acuna in the 75th minute which saw him sent off ended all hopes. Villarreal responded by dropping even deeper, removing their creative players in the centre of the pitch and leaving the capital city with a crucial away goal.
With this being a match between two sides enduring a troubling season, whoever came out on top Thursday would walk away with a newfound measure of confidence. Villarreal proved to be that club. While they were required to do little going forward to leave Estádio José Alvalade with a coveted away goal, the Spanish club can go into the second leg with a newfound lease on life. They showed proof of defensive solidarity that has so often abandoned them in La Liga. As well, with the ability to stretch teams in behind through their pacey players up front and punish them, they seem very capable of increasing their lead in the second leg next week.
For Sporting, any improvement will give them a much better chance to get back into the tie. The area of most improvement required is certainly their ability to pick apart defences who park themselves within the width of the goal. Bas Dost, so often the catalyst for attacking play this season, was unable to hold up possession or provide support to his midfielders who advanced forward to try and create. Bruno Fernandes was similarly ineffective from the centre of the park.
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