Villarreal marked its return to the elite of Spanish soccer Saturday night with a match that was almost a classic and provided La Liga audiences with their first opportunity to see Real Madrid’s summer-signing Gareth Bale in action. The Welshman, who according to his old team Tottenham cost Real a world record 101 million euros, scored his first goal for his new club with a 2-2 tie, and managed an hour on the pitch after playing virtually no soccer since last season’s English Premier League.
Both sides showed the ambitions they hold and, even if neither quite produced the perfect realization of their aims, the result was still a pulsating match, which saw both teams drop their first points of the league season after both had started out with three straight wins.
Under coach Marcelino García, the new Villarreal project has kept the essential part of the Yellow Submarine Mark 1, which was to always treat the ball with care. But there is a little less tenderness than there was with the team built by Manuel Pellegrini; while the ball stays on the ground, it is played into spaces more than to feet and the result is a faster build-up. “We used to want to look like Barcelona and now it is more Real,” as Cani, one of the survivors of the Pellegrini years, put it.
There was only one element missing from this raw new look, however, and that was a real killer instinct in front of goal. With Real looking seriously frail in defense and at times somewhat shaky when passing the ball out with what was almost a new team in Vila-real, the home side had half-a-dozen big openings in the first half-hour, of which only one ended in a goal, when the ball rolled kindly to Cani in the penalty box after the lively Jonathan Pereira had twisted and turned his markers.
But there were times when Giovani dos Santos and Pereira took the least direct path or were hesitant, although it is also true that Diego López was excellent on his return to the Madrigal stadium, where he established himself as one of the finest among this extraordinary crop of Spanish goalkeepers. The man who coach Carlo Ancelotti has said will be replaced by Iker Casillas as Real starts another Champions League quest on Tuesday, made eight saves, including a spectacular first-half stop from Pereira, and ending deep into the second period with a fingertip effort to frustrate Tomás Pina.
Victory for Villarreal would have been entirely deserved”
If the first half-hour was an extremely uncomfortable introduction for Ancelotti’s experimental line-up — including debuts for Bale, midfielder Asier Illarramendi and with Dani Carvajal and Nacho as full backs — things began to slot into place. Illarramendi, Modric and Carvajal supplied the move that led to Bale’s close-range equalizer. In the second half, Cristiano Ronaldo ended a counterattack with a degree of fortune as the ball ricocheted off his leg, but Dos Santos scored soon after meaning it was two points lost for Real on Barcelona and Atlético.
“After the break for international games, playing these matches is a physical and mental problem for the players,” said Ancelotti, although he insisted that Real could have won the match if it had been “more careful in defense” once it had gone in front.
Villarreal’s Marcelino saw it differently, saying that “victory on our part would have been entirely deserved.”
A little earlier on Saturday up the Mediterranean coast in Barcelona, Sevilla’s players and coach were fuming that they were leaving Camp Nou empty-handed after Barcelona scored its 3-2 match winner after the stated amount of injury time had been played. Leo Messi shimmied down the right and his blocked cross was put away by Alexis Sánchez.
The visitor had drawn level with two strikes in the final 10 minutes after referee Muñiz Fernández disallowed what looked like a perfectly legal headed goal by Sevilla’s Juan Cala earlier in the game.
But the champion is no longer clear at the top of the table after Atlético Madrid’s 4-2 dismissal of Almería meaning that Diego Simeone’s team has also won four out of four and is equal with Barça in terms of goals scored and conceded. Villa opened the scoring with a volley, and Diego Costa added a penalty and starred once again in a comfortable home win which also included a neat moment of trickery from Atlético. Poised over a free kick in an apparently good position for a direct shot on goal, Gabi rolled the ball to Tiago inside the area, the midfielder turning quickly to prod home and embarrass Almería.