Champions League Preview: Villarreal - Panathinaikos

2006 semi-finalists Villarreal will be looking to secure a vital first leg win over surprise qualifiers Panathinaikos...

Kick Off: Wednesday 25 February 2009, (2045 CET)

El Madrigal, Villarreal, Spain

The last 16 stage is upon us and the 2008/09 Champions League now begins in earnest. Just seven games separate the remaining sides from European glory and the chance to be included among the greats of the game.

This tie is an excellent opportunity for two of the lesser lights remaining in the competition to progress to the quarter-finals, and from that stage it is possible to start dreaming of a slot in the final at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in May.

Villarreal come into the match with a renewed fervour after a dreadful run in December and January threatened to destroy their season. From potential title challengers, they dropped out of the top four altogether; coach Manuel Pellegrini and his squad have struggled to pinpoint quite how their form dipped so emphatically in such a short period of time.

In truth, injuries have plagued Los Submarinos Amarillos throughout the season, ever since Nihat Kahveci pulled up lame for Turkey during Euro 2008. Joseba Llorente and Giuseppe Rossi too have had spells on the sidelines, disrupting their goal-scoring form and leaving the team struggling to find the net in their absence from the side.

But in their last three games they have amassed seven points including two hard fought home victories, going some way to re-instilling El Madrigal’s status as a fortress in Spain’s Primera Division.

Italian international Rossi is arguably in the best form of his short career and his performance over the two legs will be pivotal to whether his side can progress.

Second Place Syndrome

Panathinaikos are suffering ‘Real Madrid syndrome’ in the Greek Super League. The Shamrocks’ bid to win their domestic title in their centenary season appears to have been thwarted by the incredible domestic form of league leaders Olympiakos. Panathinaikos face their arch rivals on Sunday but are already twelve points behind a side who have won every one of their home matches this season, and similarly to Los Blancos in Spain, the Shamrocks’ form would usually be good enough to mount a serious title assault.

But they can console themselves with qualification to the knock-out stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2002 and face Villarreal for only the third time in their history in competitive fixtures.

However it looked for some time that their attempt to escape Group B would be consigned to failure, particularly after a humiliating 3-1 defeat to Cypriot rivals Anorthosis Famagusta had left them battling to even secure a UEFA cup place.

But a fantastic 1-0 victory over Inter at the San Siro was followed by a gratifying home win over Famagusta that not only put the Greeks through, but gave them bragging rights as group winners, leading to this clash on Wednesday evening.

Key to this meeting will be their ability to come to Spain and get a result – something that Panathinaikos have never been able to achieve. In each of the nine visits they have made to Spain in UEFA competition, they have tasted defeat, and have only manage to score five goals in those fixtures. History will need to be made in order for Henk Ten Cate’s side to leave Villarreal on a high.

The key tussle may take place in the centre of the pitch, where a battle of the Brazilians will commence between Marcos Senna and Gilberto Silva. The exchanges between the adopted Spaniard and the former Arsenal stalwart could define how this tie is determined, and it is sure to be a frenetic night.

FORM GUIDE

Villarreal

Feb 22 Villarreal 2-1 Sporting (LA LIGA)
Feb 15 Racing Santander 1-1 Villarreal (LA LIGA)
Feb 08 Villarreal 2-1 Numancia (LA LIGA)
Feb 01 Deportivo de La Coruna 3-0 Villarreal (LA LIGA)
Jan 24 Villarreal 1-1 Osasuna (LA LIGA)

Panathinaikos

Feb 21 Panathinaikos 2-1 Panionios (GREEK SUPER LEAGUE)
Feb 15 Iraklis 0-0 Panathinaikos (GREEK SUPER LEAGUE)
Feb 08 Panathinaikos 3-0 PAOK (GREEK SUPER LEAGUE)
Feb 01 Levadiakos 1-2 Panathinaikos (GREEK SUPER LEAGUE)
Jan 24 Ergotelis 1-0 Panathinaikos (GREEK SUPER LEAGUE)

TEAM NEWS

Villarreal

Gonzalo Rodriguez remains out after picking up a thigh injury against Numancia last weekend, while Guille Franco will also miss out through suspension. Coach Manuel Pellegrini’s main problem though is in the left-back position. Joan Capdevilla will miss out, also through suspension, while Angel, who has covered in this position this season, is facing a race against time to be fit for the match. If both miss out, Bruno is likely to be asked to slot into this position.

Probable XI: Diego Lopez, Javi Venta, Godin, Fuentes , Bruno/Angel, Senna, Eguren, Cazorla, Pires/Cani, Llorente, Rossi

Panathinaikos

Giannis Goumas has missed the last fortnight with a knee injury and faces a race to be fit in time for this one, while Gabriel (foot) and Christos Melissis (thigh) are also a doubt. Loukas Vintra damaged his calf in training and will almost certainly miss out, while Marcelo Mattos is expected to be out until March due to a thigh strain.

Probable XI: Galinovic, Sarriegi, Goumas/Moon, Simao, Spiropoulos, Gilberto, Karagounis, Ivanschitz, Nilsson, Salpingdis, Mantzios

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Villarreal

Giuseppe Rossi may appear to be the obvious choice to be the star man on Wednesday, but there is no denying that will be absolutely integral to Villarreal’s progression in this tournament. His goals have carried his side through their recent lean spell and allowed them to hit form at precisely the right time. Who would bet against him scoring yet again on Wednesday?

Panathinaikos

Former Arsenal man Gilberto Silva has added the necessary steel to the Greeks’ midfield this season and has perhaps questioned Arsene Wenger’s decision to make his surplus to requirements at the Emirates Stadium. He still has the range of passing to excel at this level and provide protection to his defence which could be pivotal to the Shamrocks leaving El Madrigal with a positive result.

PREDICTION

A few months ago this may have been a certain home victory, but Villarreal haven’t been at their fluent best of late and this is the type of fixture they may slip up in. Panathinaikos finished their group strongly to qualify on top and will feel they are capable of coming to Spain and snatching an away goal.

Villarreal 1-1 Panathinaikos

Paul Macdonald, Goal.com