Whether because of the undoubted merits of his own side or Arsenal’s disappointing record in Spain, coach Manuel Pellegrini is convinced Villarreal are set to surge towards the UEFA Champions League semi-finals.
The 55-year-old Chilean has the utmost respect for both Arsenal and his opposite number Arsène Wenger, with whom he bares more than a slight resemblance; but he is fired by the belief that justice was not done the last time the teams met. That came in the last four three seasons ago when the Gunners bucked a trend that had seen them lose six of their previous nine games in Spain to earn a goalless draw and complete a 1-0 aggregate triumph. The coaches may share an attacking, flair-based approach but Pellegrini begs to differ with those who suggest he and his side were outdone by Wenger and Arsenal in 2006.
“I didn’t think Arsenal were favourites three years ago and nor, in the event, were they the better side,” said Pellegrini. “That result, particularly the goalless draw in the second leg, still leaves a bitter taste because we went out despite outperforming them. There is a huge difference between the two clubs in terms of wealth, let’s not lose perspective. But we both play on the same sized pitch and I expect my team to take the initiative this time. Arsenal are a little younger as a side than three years ago but have more experience. Players change but it’s an Arsène Wenger team and they will provide a good footballing test.”
Villarreal do not approach the meeting in the best frame of mind having lost 3-0 at UD Almería on Saturday, a game they ended with nine men following the dismissal of former Gunner Robert Pirès and, with all their substitutes made, winger Santi Cazorla was then carried off with a broken leg that rules him out for the season. Yet Marcos Senna and Cani return from injury and Pellegrini is optimistic; almost as optimistic, in fact, as Wenger. “Despite the respect we have for teams at this level, our only thoughts are of coming here and trying to win,” said the Frenchman. “This season has been marked by big injuries and we have worked very hard to get here. And now we have important players back again we can push on.”
Two of those returning players took centre stage on Saturday, Cesc Fàbregas teeing up two goals for Emmanuel Adebayor in a 2-0 victory against Manchester City. Theo Walcott was also back, and is likely to be available in Villarreal despite suffering a minor knock, while Samir Nasri has recovered from flu but Robin van Persie has remained in London due to a hamstring problem. “We possess great team spirit which has helped us fight lots of negative criticism this season; we are stronger now,” said Wenger, who is certainly not underestimating a Villarreal side that, in Pirès, contain “one of the greatest signings I ever made”. He concluded: “This is a 50-50 match and we must play our half of that very well.”