Cédric Bakambu scored a goal in each half to help Villarreal to claim a vital 2-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen at the Camp El Madrigal on Thursday.
Villarreal CF 1 Bayer Leverkusen 0
Both managers make four changes to their sides
Cédric Bakambu opens the scoring in the fourth minute
Alphonse Aréola keeps his 17th clean sheet of the season
Bakambu bags brace after swift counter
Bakambu grabbed a goal in each half, with the Leverkusen defence asleep on both occasions.
The Congolese striker took both goals with aplomb to add to Leverkusen manager Roger Schmidt’s problems as his side’s poor domestic form continued into their Europa league clash.
Bakambu rewarded Villareal boss Marcelino for a starting berth in their last-16 clash of the Europa League by bagging a brace against the men from the Bundesliga.
The Congolese forward impressed alongside Roberto Soldado on the night to notch up his 13th and 14th goals of the season, but the tie could so easily have gone in a different direction as both sides were evenly matched at the Camp El Madrigal.
The Yellow Submarine, who have built their success on their defensive solidity, looked equally impressive on the counter as they nullified the threats of the highly-rated strike pairing of Stefan Kiessling and Javier Hernandez.
Marcelino could not have dreamed of a better start for his side on the night as they raced to a 1-0 lead within the first four minutes of the game.
A poor attempted clearance by Papadopoulos fell in the path of Roberto Soldado, who quickly sent the ball back over the head of the Greek centre-back and into the path of Bakambu – the 24-year old was left completely unmarked on the edge of the Bayer penalty area an finished with aplomb through the legs of an onrushing Bernd Leno.
After a difficult start to the game, Bayer are finally able to push forward on their first attacking move of the game, with Karim Bellerabi looking lively.
So often this season French goalkeeper Alphonse Aréola has been the difference for the La Liga outfit and he proved his credentials as one of the finest young shot-stoppers in Europe again when he smothered Kiessling’s shot from point-blank range after World Cup-winning midfielder Christoph Kramer set him through with a delightful chip over the Villareal defence.
Shortly after the on-loan goalkeeper’s heroics, the game sprung into life and it was a case of some enthralling end-to-end football, with Kiessling and Hernandez missing chances in quick succession. Bukambu also had the chance to make it 2-0 before the break but he sent his shot just wide of the post.
Leverkusen boss Schmidt, who has been under severe pressure of late due to his side’s poor form and defensive record in the Bundesliga, and he will no doubt be worried that his side attacking aces of Bellarabi, Hakan Çalhanoglu and Julian Brandt struggled to threaten the Villareal back four in the second-half.
Although the defence led by Victor Ruiz and Ivorian Eric Bailly was colossal on the night, the lack of creativity and composure in the final third would have frustrated the German whose 4-4-2 formation clearly backfired.
Villarreal doubled their lead in the 56th minute after more poor play by Leverkusen. The visitors pushed too many bodies up the pitch for a corner after being frustrated for most of the second-half and after they failed to captalise on their chance at goal, Brandt lost the ball in a dangerous position, allowing the hosts to break away on a blisteringly quick counter-attack.
Bakambu darted through the middle of the pitch and beat two players before heading into the penalty area where he struck a low drive through the legs of Leno to make it 2-0 to the Spanish side.
The goal visibly demoralized the away side and the game was devoid of any real quality thereafter as Villareal simply soaked up everything the German side threw at them.
However, Leno was required to make a stunning save deep into stoppage time after spending the vast majority of the last 20 minutes on the back foot, Villarreal took Bayer completely by surprise with an excellent attack down the right wing.
Matías Nahuel charged down the flank before curling a wonderful cross into the middle of the penalty area, where he found substitute Leo Baptistao, but the Brazilian’s bullet header was tipped over the top of the crossbar by an incredible reflex save from the German goalkeeper.
That was to be the last action as referee Gianluca Rocchi blew the full-time whistle to give Villareal a two-goal advantage going into the second-leg fixture in Germany next Thursday.