A host of teams across Europe are entering an important phase in their seasons as the Champions League and Europa League group stages approach their finales. For a Villarreal, this could be a fortnight that will shape the rest of their season and it is likely to prove the making or breaking of their under-pressure boss Javier Calleja.
Despite a weekend win, Villarreal are currently down in 16th in La Liga, ten places off the top six, where they’ve finished in each of the last five seasons. They are level on points with Celta Vigo, a side with lower expectations but one that has already dispensed with their coach this term. To many Calleja is fortunate to have avoided a similar fate and he will be determined to make the most of this chance as Villarreal prepare for a pivotal fortnight that also includes key Europa League matches and the 2nd Leg of a Copa del Rey tie that currently sees them level with lower league Almeria.
Young Stars offering hope
— Goal Nigeria (@GoalcomNigeria) November 25, 2018
Throughout the opening few months of the campaign, Villarreal have looked short on ideas and short of a clear identity. Positives have been few and far between. It has been heartwarming to see Santi Cazorla back on the pitch for the Yellow Submarine after an injury nightmare that at one stage had the potential to lead to an amputation such were the problems with his right leg. However Villarreal have still struggled to find balance in midfield and the summer sales of promising youngsters Rodri and Samu Castillejo angered supporters.
Villarreal have heavily invested in their academy in recent years and they’ve grown a reputation for developing players. If this season is going to be salvaged, the most likely sources of inspiration appear to be Pablo Fornals and Samuel Chukwueze, two young players who are enjoying breakthrough campaigns.
Fornals has been the undisputed star so far. He has had to move around a bit as Calleja has tinkered with his formation but now appears to have found a home in the number 10 role. The midfielder was just 7 years old when he first joined the Villarreal academy and although his football education was completed elsewhere, Villarreal struck gold when they signed him back from Malaga in the summer of 2017. Fornals is a skilful runner with the ball and although he isn’t a prolific scorer yet, his goals tend to be memorable. He chipped home to give the Yellow Submarine their first ever win at the Bernabeu last term and has scored arguably the goal of the season so far in La Liga with his 40 yard stunner at Athletic Bilbao.
At 22, Fornals is a relative veteran compared to Samuel Chukwueze who has enjoyed a remarkable few weeks. The 19 year old made his first ever appearance in La Liga on 4th November against Levante. Since then he has started two more games, scored fine goals in both of them and made his debut for Nigeria. The teenager looks to have something a bit special and will be full of confidence heading into this Thursday’s Europa League game against Rangers.
Europa League progress the aim at Ibrox
— Daily Record Rangers (@DR_Rangers) November 28, 2018
Villarreal have only won one of their four Europa League games this season but they do remain unbeaten in the competition and they currently top the tightest of the 12 groups. The clash with Rangers in Scotland is key for both sides and Villarreal will approach it with renewed belief after a much improved display and result against Real Betis on another eventful weekend in La Liga.
Even so there is little margin for error. Defeat in what is sure to be a cauldron of Glaswegian noise would most likely leave Villarreal outside the top two positions heading into the final match-day. It will be a real test of character for their younger players and it’s highly likely that Javier Calleja will resist the urge to rotate heavily here. The competition could grow in importance, particularly with Villarreal languishing in the wrong half of La Liga and facing an uphill battle to try and secure European qualification for next term.
A Testing Schedule
Santi Cazorla with two assists in two minutes for Villarreal this evening. So happy he’s overcome his horrendous injury. Santi is a joy to watch and it’s testament to his quality that he’s still able to perform at the highest level. pic.twitter.com/MNjY5vLPxG
— Darren (@DF_Arsenal) November 25, 2018
Sandwiched in between their two final Europa League group games, Villarreal have three important domestic games in seven days. They head to Camp Nou on Sunday in La Liga to take on Barcelona. A heavy defeat could potentially see them slip into the relegation zone.
Three days after that Villarreal return to the Ceramica to take on Almeria in the 2nd Leg of a Copa del Rey tie that is currently level at 3-3. With things so finely poised, again Javier Calleja will be taking a risk if he chooses to make wholesale changes. For all their impressive achievements during a century which has already seen them reach four European semi-finals, Villarreal have never won a major trophy and it’s a record they are desperate to correct so an exit in such circumstances wouldn’t be taken lightly by the board. Celta Vigo, under new management themselves, head to the Ceramica three days later and we should have a much better idea of where Villarreal are heading by the time of their final Europa League group game against Spartak Moscow.
That fixture will be pressure-free if they can secure progress by beating Rangers on Thursday night but either way Javier Calleja is going to have to skilfully use his squad over the next two weeks. A lack of obvious successors has aided his ability to stay in a job until this point. Villarreal are a club with a pretty clear idea of how they want to play football and few clear candidates stand out that would be available to take over the reigns.
Calleja will need both his bright young talents and more experienced players to deliver over the next fortnight. The likes of Valencia have already proved it’s quite easy to climb this congested Spanish Primera Divsion table if you can build some momentum. If they can combine that with progress in two cup competitions, things could soon look considerably brighter for the Yellow Submarine.