Juventus take on Villarreal in their Round of 16 Champions League first leg clash in Spain on Tuesday. Because of that, we took the opportunity to have a chat with new friend of the blog Zach from our fellow SB Nation Soccer blog Villarreal USA.
In this Q&A, we talked about how Villarreal’s season has been progressing so far up to this point, and what they were expecting from the upcoming clash with the Bianconeri.
BWRAO: How are things going for Villarreal domestically this season in what is a very heated battle for the European spots?
VILLARREAL USA: Lately things have been about as good as we can expect. Since Jan. 1, we have 14 out of 21 possible points, and we’ve played both major Madrid clubs in that time. The only bad result was a loss to Elche where most of our first- and second-choice attackers were either injured or away on AFCON duty.
The problem is that the club started out very poorly at the beginning of the year, allowing far too many results to go to draws, and so now we are in a hole. If just three of our nine draws on the season had been wins, we’d be above Barcelona in fourth now. Instead, we’re in a dog fight where about nine teams in La Liga are pushing for just seven European places (six if Real Betis doesn’t win the Copa Del Rey).
BWRAO: Is there a feeling that Villarreal have already overachieved reaching the round of 16 in the Champions League, or are you expecting more?
VILLARREAL USA: I wouldn’t say “overachieved.” Before the season, my position was that they either needed to finish top four in La Liga or make at least the round of 16 in the Champions League. We knew when the groups came out that we were capable of beating Atalanta to the punch. Once you get to the knockout phase of a tournament like this, it becomes all about who you draw. If we had drawn Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, I might just be happy with what we’d done and be ready to call it a day in Europe. Drawing Juventus left us feeling like we had a solid chance for advancement, even though I expect it to be a really tough couple of matches.
BWRAO: Has Unai Emery changed much about how Villarreal are playing this season, or is it just the consistency continuing to pay off?
VILLARREAL USA: Emery has been a bit more direct the last three months and there have been fewer instances of calling on Geronimo Rulli to play short out of the back. Our attackers are at their most devastating playing fast and finding chances to isolate defenders, and that has really paid dividends. We are one of the more talented teams in La Liga when fully fit, and as the side became more healthy our best style of play became more and more apparent. I would say that Emery has evolved us from the conscientious possession based play of last season into a side that really goes for the kill in front of goal, and our fantastic goal record since right about the very end of November shows that.
BWRAO: How do you think Villarreal will be approaching the home leg of this game on Tuesday, especially with away goals not playing a part any more?
VILLARREAL USA: Emery is going to go for it at home, I think. We probably won’t have Gerard Moreno available for this match, which is very disappointing, but the way Unai rotated our attack for the Granada match on the weekend suggests to me that he wants to go to Turin with a lead. We spoke on our last podcast about how this change — for the worse, in my opinion — to the away goals rule will be especially interesting for experienced European managers like Emery, but he will have everything meticulously planned out. I expect him to look to test your backline in transition after pressure around midfield.
BWRAO: Which Villarreal players will pose the greatest threat to Juventus in the first leg, and what is a weakness in the home side?
VILLARREAL USA: Dani Parejo’s set piece delivery and Samu Chukwueze in open space are the two biggest things you need to worry about. Danjuma will get a lot of attention for good reason, and he is probably our most likely goalscorer without Gerard, but if you focus on him at the expense of minding Samu you will get eaten alive. Chukwueze absolutely tortured Marcelo in his last performance in a way that I’ve rarely seen a fullback get beaten, and he tries to do that to everyone.
Our biggest weakness is Geronimo Rulli playing out short from the back. At one point this year he was playing more short passes than anyone in La Liga, and about once a match that had dangerous consequences for us when the other team pressed high. Emery has asked him to do that far less of late to good effect, but if Juve plan on pressing high there’s a decent chance they’ll catch Rulli making a bad decision.