Andrew Flint –
Villarreal vs Zenit St. Petersburg – March, 14 20:00 GMT/21:00 CET – Estadio de la Cerámica, Villarreal, Spain
The Yellow Submarine is sinking fast but in some considerable style. Boasting some of the most mesmerising talents outside the big three in Spain in Pablo Fornals, Karl Toko Ekambi and Samuel Chukwueze they have pace and intelligence in abundance. What they lack is consistency. In the 32 matches since their thrilling 96th-minute equaliser in Moscow saw them share six goals with Spartak, there have only been nine Villarreal games in which neither side has scored more than one goal, with just four goalless draws in that run.
The brutal truth is they are in serious trouble. Only by winning away to Levante at the weekend have they managed to crawl out of the relegation zone. Before that result, they were only one point off the very bottom of the whole table. How it has come to this will baffle most observers, given both their recent history nearer the other end of La Liga and regular forays into Europe. However, the escapism that European football provides could be the shot in the arm that they need coming into the business end of the season.
Ending Zenit’s incredible unbeaten home record in the Europa League has given Villarreal a seemingly comfortable home leg. With three away goals and a 3-1 advantage, it would take the most herculean effort from their Russian visitors to cut short the continental adventures of Villarreal. Captain Mario Gaspar isn’t taking any chances, though. “[Zenit] have nothing to lose,” he said in the pre-match press conference. “That makes them very dangerous. They have very good players… we have to control the game, and not let them think about being able to progress.”
If there’s one thing that Zenit St. Petersburg have managed this season, it is reverse fortunes when all seemed lost. Way back in August during the qualifiers against Dinamo Minsk, Zenit were 4-0 down from the first leg and appeared to be on the verge of a humiliating early exit. A stirring 8-1 thrashing in extra time at the crumbling Soviet-era Petrovsky stadium saw the Gazprom-backed giants beat their chests in visceral fashion.
That was at home though. Travelling to Europe in spring has rarely been a happy hunting ground for any Russian club, especially Zenit, and there is little hope that a they will succeed in scoring the minimum three goals they need to progress. They haven’t managed to score more than one in their last eight Europa League away games, losing six and drawing the other two of those. However, the last time they did was in Spain as they beat Real Sociedad 3-1 in the group stages two years ago.
One major plus is the shape of the squad. Serdar Azmoun has already bagged five goals in five games since joining in the winter, and other than Aleksandr Erokhin and Claudio Marchisio there are no major injuries in the squad, nor are there any suspensions. Domestically they have stretched their lead at the top of the table to relieve some pressure on that front, so Gaspar may well have a point. Semak was accused of not taking the competition seriously enough in Minsk after the 4-0 humiliation; there is little chance of him making the same mistake again.
Villarreal vs Zenit St. Petersburg – Players to Watch
Karl Toko Ekambi #17 – Villarreal
Karl Toko Ekambi was one of the most highly sought after forwards in last summer’s transfer window. The Cameroonian striker had torn apart Ligue 1 while playing for SCO Angers. The goals he scored were enough to convince Villareal to spend big and outbid the likes of Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund that were also interested in him. In the end, he joined Villareal for €18 million. Although he has struggled to make as much of an impact as might have been hoped with just four goals and one assist in 25 La Liga games, his record is a bit better in Europe with three goals and five assists in seven games.
Wilmar Barrios #25 – Zenit
For Wilmar Barrios, the matchup against Villarreal will be a welcome opportunity to say hello to a few familiar faces. “Like any Spanish team, Villarreal know how to play. One of my Colombia team-mates, Carlos Bacca, is there and I know they are strong,” Barrios told the media this week. The Colombian midfielder, who was brought in to replace Leandro Paredes made his league debut for Zenit this weekend and played well despite unfamiliar, and cold surroundings. “How is it experiencing -15C temperatures? It is new to me. I’m trying to enjoy everything that happens to me. It helps me that I am with my family. I try to dress warmly when I go out for a walk. In training, I also wrap myself up so that nothing prevents me from giving 100%,” Barrios explained. Thankfully, for the Colombian, the weather in Villarreal appears to be nice and warm with 20 degrees and sunshine expected for Thursday.
Villarreal vs Zenit St. Petersburg – Match Stats
- Villarreal have already scored seven goals against Russian clubs this season after drawing 1-1 at home and 3-3 away with Spartak Moscow
- They have won all four home matches against Russian opposition in their history
- Villarreal have gone through to the next round on all eight occasions that they have won the first leg away from home.
- Zenit lost their proud 23-match unbeaten home record in the Europa League last week
- In their four knockout encounters with Spanish opposition, they have lost on aggregate three times. The one time they went through was against Villarreal.
- Although Zenit are in the last 16 for the joint-record fifth time, they have only progressed once in their last four attempts
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Villarreal vs Zenit St. Petersburg 2-2
Villarreal vs Zenit St. Petersburg – Possible Lineups
Fernandez – Gonzalez, Funes Mori, Ruiz – Pedraza, Iborra, Cazorla, Morlanes, Gaspar – Toko Ekambi, Bacca
Head coach: Javier Calleja
Zenit St. Petersburg
Lunev – Smolnikov, Ivanovic, Rakitskiy, Zhirkov – Kuzyaev, Barrios, Hernani – Rigoni, Azmoun, Driussi
Head coach: Sergey Semak
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.