Villarreal claim vital win in Bilbao
Villarreal put their recent indifferent domestic form behind them with a valuable three-point haul against fellow European hopefuls Athletic Bilbao at San Mames tonight.
Although they have tasted success in the UEFA Europa League recently, beating Bayer Leverkusen home and away to reach the quarter-finals, Villarreal had won just one of their previous seven La Liga matches. However they improved their league fortunes and were victorious again today thanks to Marco Ruben's second-half header.
The victory means the Yellow Submarine provisionally move level on 54 points with third-placed Valencia, who face Sevilla later this evening, and they now boast a massive 11-point advantage over Espanyol in fifth. Sixth-placed Athletic are a point further back after slumping to their fifth defeat in seven games.
The fixture pitted the two most prolific La Liga sides after Barcelona and Real Madrid this season against each other, but it was defences on top during a goalless first half.
Athletic star Fernando Llorente went close with an early header and his strike partner Iker Muniain had a good chance after skipping past his marker on the edge of the box, but the youngster`s weak shot was easily save by Diego Lopez. Aside from those efforts though, neither goalkeeper had much to worry about before the break.
It was a different story in the second half however as both sides became increasingly dangerous going forward. Muniain curled a shot not far wide of the far post before Villarreal took the lead in the 57th minute.
Ruben proves the difference
Playmaker Borja Valero picked out the unmarked Ruben inside the box and the Villarreal number nine powered a header past Gorka Iraizoz from 12 yards out. That would end up being the only goal of the game, but Athletic fought hard to get back on level terms in the final half-hour.
Llorente volleyed just wide of the far post after chesting the ball down, before his fellow World Cup winner Javi Martinez got in between two Villarreal defenders to send a looping header over Lopez, but it landed just wide of the far post. Athletic substitute Markel Susaeta also drew a good low save out of Lopez, while at the other end Iraizoz was playing his part in the home goal.
He kept out an effort from Villarreal's record goalscorer Giuseppe Rossi - looking for his 27th competitive goal of the season - before producing a superb double save to deny Ruben and Santi Cazorla in quick succession.
However, Athletic could not make the most of their goalkeeper`s efforts and their final chance of netting an equaliser saw Lopez make a fantastic one-handed save to turn behind Llorente`s header.