Manuel Veth –
Villarreal vs Spartak Moscow – Thursday, December 13, 17:55 GMT/ 18:55 CET – Estadio de la Ceramica, Villarreal – Spain
Javi Calleja was sacked as manager on Monday after the Yellow Submarine sank to 17th in La Liga, only keeping their heads above relegation water on goal difference from Athletic Bilbao. Last time these teams met back in October, it was Spartak Moscow who were struggling for form and with a very public airing of their dirty laundry, but now it is Villarreal’s turn. Luis Garcia Plaza has been appointed in the meantime with the brief to secure spring European football in the short term.
The problem for him is that the long-term priorities are far more concerning. Calleja had begun his reign last year in spectacular style, amassing more points (13) from his first five games in charge than any other Villarreal manager in history and guiding them to an impressive fifth-place finish. As usual, a firesale robbed them of many of their star performers, and the replacements have struggled to live up to their billing. In a season of big-name fallibilities in Spain, Villarreal have been struggling more than most.
The enterprising form of Nigerian youngster Samuel Chukwueze has offered some consolation. Three goals since the start of November have at the very least offered an outlet for a side that have only scored one goal per league game so far. Ramiro Funes Mori has been shunted into a makeshift defensive midfield role to little success, leaving the guile of Santi Cazorla and Pablo Fornals to pose a threat. Whether they will offer enough to stay afloat depends largely on the application and team selection of Spartak.
Oleg Kononov has taken over the permanent position as manager of the 2017 Russian champions with little going for him. Despite a reasonably strong record in charge of Krasnodar and Arsenal Tula, his calm demeanour is completely at odds with the popular charisma of sacked predecessor Massimo Carrera for starters. The Spartak faithful retain their loyalty to the Italian who had brought them a first league championship in 16 years. Fighting against that from the start is arguably Kononov’s greatest challenge.
More cautious by nature, he has reverted to a safety-first mode by picking his more experienced players, including controversial duo Andrey Eshchenko and club captain Denis Glushakov. The latter in particular is despised by most fans after his underhand campaign to undermine Carrera and influence youth team players to support him, not to mention his poor form. For now, though he remains in his new manager’s plans, with injuries to Fernando and Roman Zobnin forcing Kononov’s hand somewhat.
The task for Spartak is simple: win, and they qualify. Three points would lift them above Villarreal and at least one of Rapid Vienna and Rangers, who face each other in Austria. On paper, the mathematics are simple, therefore. In reality, Spartak’s away European record is appalling, while key players such as Samuel Gigot, Roman Eremenko, Salvatore Bocchetti and Eshchenko will be missing to further compound their troubles. Anything other than victory will see them knocked out of Europe altogether, with the chilling glare of owner Leonid Fedun their only welcome.
Villarreal vs Spartak Moscow – Players to Watch
Santi Cazorla #19 – Villarreal
The miracle for Cazorla is not that he is performing so well after a horrific injury to his knee, but that he is even walking at all. After 636 days out of action and ten operations to repair a horrific tendon infection, he was told at one point he might never walk again. Despite all that, he has defied the odds to battle back to fitness to finally play football again, although it is not quite such a fairytale on the pitch. His creative spark and experience are a key to progressing the Spanish side’s play to more mobile attackers such as Pablo Fornals, so Spartak will do well to keep him quiet first and foremost.
Ze Luis #9 – Spartak Moscow
The Cape Verdean international has been a rare consistent performer for Spartak in this messy season that has seen three managers in the hot seat already. He scored twice at the weekend to take his season tally to a very respectable 11 goals in 23 games in all competitions and will pose arguably the biggest threat in Spain. His agility to never give defenders a moment’s rest is exhausting to cover on top of his stamina and hold-up play. In recent weeks his partnership with Luiz Adriano, in particular, has flourished.
Villarreal vs Spartak Moscow – Match Stats
- The last two meetings, including earlier in this groups stage in Moscow, have produced ten goals spread across two draws
- Villarreal have won all three home matches against Russian opposition, although they were knocked out by Zenit last time survival was on the line
- Although unbeaten Villarreal top the group, they could be knocked out if they lose and Rapid Vienna draw with Rangers
- Spartak have never drawn away in Spain (W5, L10)
- On their last visit, they beat Athletic Bilbao but had lost the previous four in a row
- That was their only win in their last 15 European away matches (D6, L8)
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Villarreal vs Spartak Moscow– 2-1
Villarreal vs Spartak Moscow – Possible Lineups
Asenjo – Gaspar, Gonzalez, Ruiz, Funes Mori – Caseres, Cazorla – Chukwueze, Trigueros, Fornals – Moreno
Manager: Javi Calleja
Rebrov – Rasskazov, Kutepov, Dzhikia, Kombarov – Glushakov, Popov – Melgarejo, Hanni, Luiz Adriano – Ze Luis
Manager: Oleg Kononov
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.