It Wasn’t Pretty, But Villarreal Closed Out Bayern Munich
9:00 AM EDT on April 13, 2022
Villarreal did it. After taking a precarious, though not unearned, 1–0 home lead in the first leg of its Champions League quarterfinal against Bayern Munich, the Yellow Submarine headed to Germany, 90 minutes away from an unlikely semifinal berth. Though Tuesday's performance wasn't as stellar as the home leg, and though Villarreal went down 1–0 early in the second half, a late winner from substitute forward Samuel Chukwueze was just enough to send one of the competition's favorites home much earlier than anyone expected.
Whereas the first leg was a story of an underdog team bringing the fight to its much more talented opponent, the second leg played out more like one could have expected heading into the tie. Bayern controlled 68 percent of the possession, had significantly more shots (23 to Villarreal's 4), and generally looked as good as it usually does. A week further removed from a knock that hobbled him over the past fortnight, Robert Lewandowski scored a goal in the 52nd minute, knotting the aggregate score at one goal apiece.
Even with that in mind, Villarreal displayed some of the same defensive fortitude that allowed it to jump into the lead last week. Only four of Bayern's 23 shots were on target, and none beyond the goal required much of goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli. Unai Emery's men defended as well as anyone has defended Bayern in recent years, banking on its backline to keep out any dangerous forays into the club's defensive third. 36-year-old Raúl Albiol was immense, much in the same way his center back partner Pau Torres was last time out, and 33-year-old Étienne Capoue provided some key interceptions and stops from the midfield. The veterans held down the fort just long enough for one of the club's most exciting young players to seal the deal on the other end.
In the 88th minute, Villarreal was able to clear a Bayern attack from its own box, triggering one of a small number of counter-attacks the other way. Gerard Moreno found himself with space down Bayern's right side, and slotted across a perfect low ball to a barely onside Chukwueze, who bounced the ball off the turf into a rapid chip that sailed over the out-stretched hands of Manuel Neuer. Suddenly, out of very little, Villarreal's only shot on target on the night gave it the equalizer and, more importantly, the 2–1 aggregate lead:
It's not hyperbole to say that this is one of the bigger upsets in recent Champions League memory, perhaps since Ajax took out both Real Madrid and Juventus in 2018–19. Villarreal is a mid-sized club by Spanish standards, far behind the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atlético Madrid when it comes to money and prestige. The club currently sits in seventh in La Liga, albeit it with one of the sturdier defenses in the league: 30 goals against, jointly the third-fewest in the competition. Villarreal doesn't score a lot, but it can do what it did to Bayern on Tuesday: frustrate a team into committing forward, then strike back against a backpedaling defense.
The task only gets harder for Villarreal from here. Though Benfica could surely come back—if anything crazy could happen, it would be fitting if it happens on this side of the bracket—Liverpool has a comfortable 3–1 lead heading to Anfield on Wednesday. The Reds will pose a similar problem as Bayern: more talent, particularly in attack, only with added counter-attacking intensity if Villarreal were to commit men forward. Before the past six days, this would feel like an impossible task, but Villarreal is playing with house money now. Who's to say the final is out of reach, when so many likely thought this was already the end of line? Thanks to pragmatic defending and two goals when it mattered, Villarreal rides on, and Bayern gets sent home to wonder how it all went so wrong.