Serial Europa League winner Unai Emery will be aiming to make progress in the Champions League as Villarreal welcome Juventus to the Estadio de la Ceramica for the first leg of their last-16 battle.
The Yellow Submarine finished second in Group F behind Manchester United to make it this far, while Juve topped Group H ahead of reigning champions Chelsea.
Emery’s glittering success in the second tier of Europe’s continental competition is unparalleled, but the former Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain boss will be more aware than anyone that his side are major underdogs to lift the Champions League trophy aloft.
Villarreal largely managed to hold their own in the group stages – despite suffering a pair of defeats to Manchester United – as a thrilling 3-2 win away to Atalanta BC on the final matchday confirmed their place in the knockout rounds for the first time since 2009.
Arnaut Danjuma was the hero of the hour for the Yellow Submarine on that day with a brace, and the Dutch attacker once again stole the show in the weekend’s La Liga battle with Granada, taking home the match ball with three of his side’s strikes in a romping 4-1 success.
A four-game domestic unbeaten run – during which time they have taken 10 points from a possible 12 and conceded just one goal – is just what the doctor ordered for Emery’s side ahead of this battle, with the Villarreal coach leading the Yellow Submarine through to only their third-ever Champions League knockout run.
Arsenal eliminated Villarreal on both previous occasions in 2005-06 and 2008-09 – so a hint of nostalgia may come into play for Emery despite his ill-fated North London stint – but his side are facing a true test of their mettle this week, in spite of their six-game unbeaten run on home soil
Forcing the reigning champions to settle for second place in the group stages is surely a good omen for this topsy-turvy Juventus outfit, who are long overdue success on the European stage as they also endeavour to re-assert their dominance domestically.
The less said about the 4-0 thumping at Stamford Bridge the better, but Massimiliano Allegri otherwise oversaw five wins from his side’s other five Group H matches to advance with 15 points – only the three perfect sides in Ajax, Liverpool and Bayern Munich progressed with a better record.
However, Juve have started to falter in Serie A once again and did not warm up for this contest in ideal fashion – forced to settle for a 1-1 draw with Torino in the Derby della Mole as Matthijs de Ligt’s early effort was cancelled out by the visitors’ talisman Andrea Belotti.
The 1995-96 Champions League winners are making their eighth consecutive appearance in the knockout rounds, but the last-16 curse has bedevilled them for the past two years – going out at this stage to Lyon in 2020 before that disheartening exit to Porto last year.
A seven-game unbeaten run in all competitions is nothing to be sniffed at, though, and Juve will lock horns with Villarreal for the first time ever competitively this week, with the Yellow Submarine thrashing the Old Lady 4-1 in a friendly back in 2009.
Villarreal Champions League form:
Villarreal form (all competitions):
Juventus Champions League form:
Juventus form (all competitions):
We say: Villarreal 2-1 Juventus
With Juve’s ongoing absentee woes in the final and defensive third, a Danjuma-inspired Villarreal ought to sense a major opportunity to gain the upper hand in the tie amid their hot streak of form.
A wounded Bianconeri are not to be underestimated by any stretch, but their struggles without a full-strength squad were evident in the Torino derby draw, and we can see Emery’s Villarreal taking a slender first-leg advantage to Turin.