Tonight, we welcome Villarreal to our rebuilt fortress Ibrox for the next game in the oh so exciting, or is it stressful, Europa league. These are the games we have been looking forward to since 2012. And what a group this has turned into.
Only two points split all four teams so every team can still survive until after the winter stop. There is no point in crying over spilt milk but we really should be sitting on easy street after the two games against Spartak Moscow. Although I never saw that game I can pull my hair out to think we scored three goals away from home and still came away with "Nul Points". That was magnified further if you remember the, perfectly good, chalked off goal from Alfredo Morelos. That goal would have put us 4-2 up and changed the whole complexion of the game. That said the defending on that evening left a lot to be desired so it is what it is.
Due to the resulting 3-4 defeat that result means if we want to keep qualification for the next round in our own hands then a win is a must against Villarreal. If we don't win then it means we are depending on some favourable results from the other matches. A win for Rapid Vienna over Spartak would keep it mathematically possible to qualify even if we lose, but it would playing Russian Roulette in the last set of games. Villarreal would also not need to play their first team against Spartak as they would be group winners already. If we lose and Spartak beat Rapid then the game's a bogey.
Villarreal have been having a pretty torrid time this season and are currently lying in sixteenth position in the Primera División. Before last Sunday's win against Real Betis they were actually lying seventeenth, just one place above the relegation zone. After that win they will have picked up a bit of confidence and their European form has not been too bad as they are currently unbeaten in their last ten away Europa League group stage matches. They have won three and drawn seven. However, I always say runs and records are there to be broken.
I actually watched the first-half of their game on Sunday against Betis and I can say that they do look dangerous when they are attacking, but they really look very shaky when defending. Although Betis didn't capitalise, they got in behind the full-backs on a number of occasions. Looking back on our match in Spain, that is also where our two goals came from. Getting in behind the full-backs is a particular strong point of ours with Tavernier and Candeias linking on the right and hopefully Barisic and Middleton linking on the left. Grezda may also be called to take that left wing position but Middleton has been hitting some fantastic free-kicks and corners and that will probably just give him the nod.
So what will Gerrard's tactics be? I certainly don't think we will go gung ho right from the start and I also think it will be wishful thinking to think we will be able to dominate for the greater part of the game, so I think we will set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. We definitely need the defence to be far better than they were in Moscow. Allan McGregor will also probably have to play an important role in that as the Villarreal strikers love to shoot on sight as we learned in Spain. I have heard a lot of people say that they would bring back Joe Worrall for the game but I have no idea why we would drop Gareth McAuley since he got into the team. Yes, he may be 38 years old but his positional sense and strength in the tackle make up for any loss of speed he may have. Don't forget Davie Weir took us to the UEFA final in 2008!
I also don't see the defence having the same difficulty with dead ball situations or having to make many headers in this game as the Villarreal mainly play on the deck. McAuley made Connor Goldson also look like a far more confident player with his constant instructions. Big Connor was also breaking into the midfield far more on Saturday probably because he trusted MçAuley to mop up at the back. Villarreal are a completely different class to Livingston of course.
As I said earlier think the team will be set up in a 4-2-3-1 and I am hoping that Borna Barisic is fit and will be making his return despite the manager suggesting otherwise in yesterday's press conference. In midfield, if Ejaria does get the nod over Coulibaly then he will need to play a lot better than he did on Saturday.
All in all, what a shame it would be to throw away what was an excellent start to the group section games and go out like a damp squib. However, I really do think we can get in behind the Villarreal defence though and come away with a 2-1 win. to appease what will a huge crowd again at Ibrox tonight. Come on the 'Gers!
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