Athletic’s excellent defense was put to the test on Sunday as the Lions traveled to Estadio de la Cerámica. Villarreal were averaging 3.4 goals per game at home but the Basques were ready to stand tall. A win would see Athletic move back into the top seven but a loss meant that they would fall to the bottom half of the table. In what was one of the most important games of the season, the Zurigorri were ready for anything.
As expected, Villarreal started the game strong. For the opening 20 minutes the Yellow Submarine released a barrage of attacks that pinned Athletic in their own third. Unai Simón would be called into action just minutes after kickoff as the keeper made a beautiful save on a low shot to the far post. It wouldn’t be the last time he denied the hosts.
Iñigo Martinez would have the first chance to put Athletic ahead when he tried to direct a header on goal. However, the defender wasn’t able to make clean contact with Ibai Gómez’s set piece cross and the shot was wide. Villarreal immediately responded with strong attacking sequence in which Santi Cazorla blasted a long effort at goal which was stopped by another stunning save from Simón.
Minutes later Iñaki Williams would have an opportunity from a corner kick. The ball found the striker at the far post but he was unable to put his header on target. Athletic arguably should have been ahead but the goal was missing. At this point the Lions started to really get into the game. Mikel San José had a long shot saved at the half hour mark as Villarreal were unable to send as many players forward in attack.
Villarreal took control again after the break and finally put the ball in the back of the net in the 52nd minute with a ball over the top of the defense from a set piece. However, the flag was up with Gerard Moreno in an offside position. Moreno would then have a very similar opportunity at the hour mark but saw his close range shot saved by Simón to keep the game scoreless.
The game became much more open in the final thirty minutes and it was up to Simón to deny the hosts yet again in the final moments. Raúl Albiol had a beautiful header from a free kick which should have opened up the scoring but Simón’s quick reflexes silenced the fans at Estadio de la Cerámica yet again. Iñaki Williams, Raúl García, and Yuri Berchiche all had half chances late in the game but couldn’t break the deadlock.
Athletic had created several scoring opportunities but struggled to finish. However, keeping a clean sheet against Villarreal is a remarkable achievement and taking one point from this fixture will be seen as a positive result for the Lions who moved back into 8th place. Athletic will host Levante at San Mamés in one week where they will have the opportunity to climb further up the table before the international break.