Villarreal are just 90 minutes away from a first major European final, and with the daunting prospect of an intense second leg at Anfield occupying their minds, they can be forgiven if they show a lack of ambition or willingness to entertain at Mestalla. Take the 11/1 available on no goalscorer and and reinforce it with a bet on under 1.5 goals at 3/1.
The Yellow Submarine are four points clear of Celta Vigo and six clear of Athletic Bilbao, both of whom meet at San Mames in the lunchtime kick-off primarily trying to avoid a Europa League play-off next August, the main benefit of finishing fifth. If, as the market expects, Celta fail to win, then it only strengthens Villarreal’s positionally on in fourth place and increases the attraction of turning this clash into a non-event.
It would be a predictable course of action either way, because it’s one Marcelino’s men have resorted to on several occasions already this term. Indeed, only last weekend, they were happy to play out a goalless stalemate at home to mid-table Real Sociedad, just one of six 0-0 draws since late October and their fifth since the winter break.
In this case, there’s a clear parallel with the 0-0 against Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon two months ago, a fixture that was lodged between both legs of their last-32 Europa League clash with Napoli (after a 1-0 first-leg win at El Madrigal). Villarreal shut up shop in the capital and if they can do that to Diego Simeone’s men, they can certainly do it to Valencia.
Los Che have improved markedly under Pako Ayesterán but they were never going to do anything else after the soul-sapping experience of the Gary Neville era, where the language barrier rendered the whole exercise pointless long before Peter Lim bit the bullet. However, last weekend’s 2-2 draw at relegation-threatened Getafe hints at a regression to the mean following convincing wins over Sevilla, Barcelona and Eibar.
Some punters will no doubt recall the sensational 2-1 win at the Camp Nou only two weeks ago and conclude that Valencia have what it takes to break through whatever resistance Villarreal put up. But it’s worth noting that Los Che required an Ivan Rakitic own goal to get them up and running that night, and registered only two shots on target across the 90 minutes.
In fact, their shot profile - seven attempts, two on target - was identical in the reverse fixture at El Madrigal back on New Year’s Eve, when a nothing game was settled by a direct free-kick from Bruno Soriano. That was the third of 13 clean sheets in the last 21 league matches for Villarreal. Meanwhile, the corresponding fixture at Mestalla 12 months ago finished 0-0.
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