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Scouting Villarreal ahead of the Champions League Round of 16

The Yellow Submarine are the latest in a string of decent draws Juve have received in their first knockout round. Will they finally take advantage?

Villarreal v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

When all of the stupidity was over and the draw for the Champions League Round of 16 was finally over and official, Juventus had been matched up with Villarreal.

It was one of the better draws Juve could have gotten. With the exception of Paris Saint-Germain, all of the teams they could have been drawn against were at a relatively even level, and the Yellow Submarine was a lateral move from originally drawn opponent Sporting — perhaps not the absolute best that could have drawn, certainly not the worst.

Of course, we’ve said that about the last two draws Juventus have received, too, only to see Olympique Lyon and Porto usher them out of the tournament.

Villarreal is the kind of side that would have been considered an appetizer for the club by the end of Massimiliano Allegri’s first tenure. Right now, on paper, Juventus should be considered something of a favorite over them, although we’ve learned over the last few years we know that nothing is certain for this team.

Had Villarreal not won the Europa League last year, they wouldn’t have even been in the Champions League this season — or the Europa League, for that matter. Their seventh-place finish would’ve had them in the new UEFA Conference League if it hadn’t been for their Europa League success. They’ve been solidly in the upper third of the La Liga table ever since their recovery from a surprise relegation in 2012-13, save for an anomalous 14th two years ago. They’ve never met Juventus in a competitive fixture before.

Their coach, Unai Emery, is the world’s supreme master of UEFA’s lower tier competition, winning four Europa Leagues, including three in a row with Sevilla from 2014 through 2016 that brought him to the attention of the big clubs in the first place. His record in Europe’s premier competition, though, is a good deal shorter and far less successful. The most notable moment of his career as a Champions League manager was being on the receiving end of Barcelona’s famous remontada in 2016-17. This season he’s used several different formations, but has most often relied on a 4-4-2, using it nine times in La Liga and another four in the Champions League.

That setup has brought results that were decidedly mixed. Villarreal didn’t lose a league game until the middle of October — but they only won two of them, and when they did finally lose it dropped them into a bad run of form that saw them drop five of eight. They’ve recovered somewhat before Christmas, winning their last three, but they still sit at ninth in the La Liga table. Their schedule before the first leg in late-February could end up just as busy as Juve’s, depending on how far they go in the Copa del Rey. They’re currently in the Round of 32, but if they make it as far as the quarterfinals there will be two extra games in their schedule before Juve heads to El Madrigal for the first leg.

Just how well does the Spanish outfit match up with Juventus man for man? Let’s take a closer look at some of their position groups.

Manchester United v Villarreal CF: Group F - UEFA Champions League Photo by Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

GOALKEEPER

Another year, another Argentine goalkeeper facing down Juve in the first round.

Last year it was Porto’s Augustin Marchesin, who made some pretty darn impressive (and important) saves over two legs. This year it’s Geronimo Rulli, whose early career saw him yo-yoing from whichever club owned him to Real Sociedad on loan, before the club finally decided to buy him outright from Manchester City. Overall, he played 170 games for the club before being displaced himself in 2019. He was loaned again, this time to Montpellier, before signing a permanent deal with Villarreal last season.

Emery decided to split his goalkeepers last season, with Sergio Asenjo playing most games in La Liga and Rulli taking the gloves in the Europa League. He played every game for Villarreal in that competition, and has the distinction of being one of, if not the only goalkeeper to have scored the decisive goal in a European competition. When the Europa League final against Manchester United went into a marathon 11-round shootout, it was Rulli who scored his kick before stopping his opposite number David De Gea to claim the team’s first trophy. This year he’s outpaced his teammate and become the unquestioned No. 1.

Rulli is a good goalkeeper. He’s particularly strong commanding his box when it comes to crosses and loose balls, and he’s quick and decisive when it comes to coming off his line. That tendency includes leaving his box to intervene with a loose ball — sometimes in traffic. Some of those forays could end badly in the face of a good presser like Alvaro Morata or Federico Chiesa, but Rulli rarely miscalculates and almost always manages to get the ball at least temporarily clear when he choses to make those runs.

We’re looking at a good keeper here. He makes the saves he’s expected to make and has good command of his box — and sometimes beyond. I’d take Wojciech Szczesny in full form over him most days, but Rulli is no slouch and certainly not a liability. Juve’s forwards will have to be on point to beat him.

DEFENDERS

Villarreal’s defense has been up and down this season. They’re tied for joint fifth in La Liga, but they also gave up nine goals in six games in the group stage and very nearly frittered away a three goal lead in the final group stage game against Atalanta. They also have an unfortunate tendency to concede late. In all competitions this season, all but two of their losses have seen the decisive goal scored in the 75th minute or later.

Villarreal CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

The core center-back pairing is pretty much set in stone, with former Napoli man Raul Albiol joining 24-year-old Pau Torres. Albiol brings experience in this competition from his time in Naples under Maurizio Sarri, as well as a familiarity with players like Paulo Dybala, that could serve Emery well in this contest. Torres had a busy summer, splitting time with Eric Garcia in the starting XI for Spain this summer at Euro 2020(1) and then going to the Tokyo Olympics. The two have a lot of experience together, having started as a unit for the team’s run to the Europa League title last year, and have managed to hold some good teams when they’re on their day.

The fullback spots fluctuate a little bit more, and are often a signal of what kind of game Emery intends to play on a given day.

The right side is the domain of Juan Foyth, who leads the team in tackles per game in both domestic and European competition and often slides into a more central role when Emery decides to employ a back three. The left is where the changes come, with the playing time relatively evenly split between Pervis Estupinan and youth product Alfonso Pedraza. The latter is more naturally a winger, but, in the vein of Juan Cuadrado, can also operate on the flank, which is where Emery has been deploying him the most this season. Alberto Moreno has also seen time at the spot, but it will more likely come down to those two. Will Emery decide to go for broke, especially in the home leg, and attempt to give Pedraza a chance to attack, or will he play things safer with Estupinan given the offensive firepower that Juve can throw down that flank in the form of Cuadrado, Chiesa, and even Federico Bernardeschi and Dejan Kulusevski. How he sets that side up could tell us a lot about his tactical intentions come kickoff time.

MIDFIELDERS

Just like the center-backs, the central midfield is very much a constant for Emery. Etienne Capoue and Daniel Parejo played in all six games in the group stage, and have started 15 and 14 of the team’s 18 matches in the league so far this season.

Parejo is the team’s creator. He’s already registered eight assists in all competitions this year, and will be the man that Juve’s midfield will have to key in on in order to keep Villarreal’s offense in check. Capoue is the enforcer type. His 1.8 tackles per game in La Liga is second on the team to Foyth, and he leads the team in interceptions per match in both competitions.

When Emery wants to deploy a third midfielder — he’s gone 4-3-3 five times this year — he’ll employ Manu Trigueros, who has been deployed in the center of the park, as a trequartista, out wide, and even as a striker in one case. Depth is also provided by Francis Coquelin.

This is where the game will be won and lost. Juve’s midfield has been their downfall in their last three Champions League ousters. Ajax managed to dominate them three-on-two in 2019, Lyon’s midfield completely smothered Juve’s in the first leg in 2020, and last season Juve couldn’t handle Sergio Oliveira, and their own midfield made a couple of key mistakes en route to their dramatic elimination. Whether Allegri decides to go with a double pivot himself or to add an extra body into the midfield, whoever plays in the middle of the park will have to gain control of things, otherwise Juve’s Round of 16 bug will continue to plague them.

FORWARDS

Gerard Moreno is the tip of the spear for Villarreal. He started the season slow this year and missed the month of November with an injury, but he went off in December, scoring five goals in his last three games before Christmas and adding an assist, plus another helper in the 3-2 win over Atalanta that got the Yellow Submarine into the draw. After spending the summer pushing Morata for a spot in Spain’s lineup at the Euros, he’s getting hot at a good time for Emery.

Villarreal CF v Deportivo Alaves - La Liga Santander Photo by Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

His most frequent partner in attack has been Dutchman Arnaut Danjuma, who actually leads the team in goals in all competitions with nine, while Boulaye Dia has also gotten some significant minutes. Also available is Paco Alcacer, who has experience in this competition with both Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, and was on the Barca team that Juve bounced en route to Cardiff in 2016-17.

The hallmark of this group of forwards is adaptability. Danjuma can kick out to the left if Emery decides to employ a trident attack, while they have also used single- and double-striker formations with equal effectiveness. They scored 12 times in the group stage, but are only eighth in goals domestically with 26 goals — and five of those came in their last game against Alaves.

This is a forward line that, like Juve’s own, has been sputtering. It’s possible that some of that had to do with the poor form and then absence of Moreno early in the season, and the Spain international seems to be rounding into form as the calendar turns. But domestically, at least, they’ve struggled to score. In Europe it’s been a different story, but that’s been against teams like Young Boys, always a second-tier European side, and Atalanta have been shot through with injuries in their back line throughout the year. Manchester United aren’t particularly spectacular defensively either, but did manage to hold them scoreless at the Madrigal in their return leg. Juve’s defense still has a lot of fans skittish after the last two seasons, but they’re not the third-best defense in the league for nothing. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci throttled Moreno in their semifinal at the Euros, and whether they’re deployed as a pair or Matthijs de Ligt slots in for one, they should have enough oomph to keep them mostly in check.


The last few years, Juventus has dug themselves a hole in the first leg before falling short in the second. Against Porto and Lyon they managed to fight back to parity, only be booted on away goals. That antiquated rule has finally been cast aside, but a big start is very much a key. Since Juve made the final in 2016-17, they’ve only come out of the first leg of a knockout tie in a winning position once, and even then in the 2018-19 quarterfinal it was only by virtue of away goals against Ajax, who promptly turned the 1-1 draw into a 3-2 aggregate.

On paper, Juve out-talent Villarreal in every department except perhaps midfield, where the dropoff between Manuel Locatelli and everyone else is pretty steep. But they are good enough to take advantage of any mistakes Juve makes. The same could have been said last year, and Juve obliged them by beating themselves to death in both legs.

In a vacuum, this is Juve’s tie to lose. But nothing can be said with certainty, and the health of each squad when February rolls around will be critical. This will be a closely played tie, and Juve will need to do things right — and perhaps be on the receiving end of some better luck than in years past — in order to make a trip to the quarterfinal for the first time in three years.