The coaches of Villarreal CF and Rangers FC united in identifying nerves as a possible key factor in deciding whether it is the team from Spain or the Scottish title-holders who will win a place in Friday's draw for the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.
Villarreal have a slight advantage after their spirited 2-2 draw in Glasgow two weeks ago, but coach Manuel Pellegrini admits the pressure and enormous attention surrounding this tie have left him worrying about every detail. Although such caution was only to be expected from the meticulous Chilean, who has had such a dramatic effect on the Primera División club since taking over in 2004, the theme of nerves played nicely into the tactical plan which Rangers manager Alex McLeish has prepared for the match.
McLeish said: "It is part of our thinking that this is a huge occasion for Villarreal and that they have never been at this stage of a Champions League tournament before. I'd like to discover whether they are feeling any nerves and whether or not the occasion might affect some of their individuals. Villarreal have some absolutely marvellous players and they did take a good result back from Ibrox. But they are only human and I know that towards the end of the qualifying tie against Everton [FC], there were quite a few nerves among the Villarreal players. I'd like to think that my players and our tactical plan could test that idea out."
The Rangers game plan could well break down into two straightforward tasks - find a way to minimise the influence of Villarreal playmaker Juan Román Riquelme, and defend in such a manner that a single away goal might be enough to secure a memorable victory. Pellegrini seems to have anticipated such a tactic. "Before such a big match like this, everything makes you worry and you examine every possible angle during your preparation," he said. "We have a great opportunity to reach the last eight and it's useful that we don't have to be in a rush to score because we have the two away goals.
"Rangers, like any away team, have the prospect of going one goal ahead and then defending. But the key to victory will be us trying to be better than Rangers in as many aspects of the match as possible and committing fewer mistakes than in the first leg." Neither Pellegrini nor his captain Quique Álvarez felt particularly threatened by Rangers' style of play, even though much has been made in Spain about the Scottish side's approach.
Pellegrini continued: "Results seem to show that we are not unhappy playing British teams, having done well against Middlesbrough [FC], Everton and Manchester United [FC]. The British style can be tricky to defend against but I think we are happy facing it." Álvarez added: "I don't mind having a busy night in the centre of defence so long as we keep them at bay. They are very threatening when winning the second ball after crosses into the box and reacting to any rebounds in front of goal."
Villarreal have all their major players available with the exception of the injured Juan Pablo Sorín, and seem likely to stick with the front pairing of José María Romero and Diego Forlán despite a match-winning performance from new Argentinian signing Guillermo Franco against Deportivo Álaves on Saturday. For Rangers, McLeish may well restore Thomas Buffel to the starting lineup as a replacement for the suspended Dado Pršo, following the weekend victory at Falkirk FC.
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