FC Salzburg finished a stunning UEFA Europa League group stage with a 1-0 win at Villarreal CF, Dušan Švento's exquisitely-finished early strike giving them a perfect tally of six wins from six games, with just two goals conceded.
Salzburg have been a revelation in this campaign, their quick, intelligent one-touch counterattacking a pleasure to watch, and when they opened the scoring at El Madrigal the goal came from precisely that style of smart thinking, swift execution and clinical cutting edge. With Villarreal edging forward as the ball was cleared into midfield, Simon Cziommer gobbled up loose possession and instantly lobbed the ball between the home central defenders. Švento had anticipated the pass, Villarreal's reserve keeper Javier Oliva hesitated fatally and the Slovakian midfielder stretched out his left leg to angle the ball home.
Only seven minutes had passed and it took nearly until the half hour for the admittedly under-strength Yellow Submarine to reach the danger area at the other end. When they did, Salzburg keeper Eddie Gustafsson showed his counterpart that speed of thought and firmness of action are vital, sprinting out to block the menacing Joseba Llorente. The Basque striker, Bruno Soriano and Jonathan Pereira, in particular, worked tirelessly to try and impose Villarreal's brand of football on the match but their results were patchy. Rabiou Afolabi and Ibrahim Sekagya were towers of strength at the back for Huub Stevens' side and Cziommer used all his possession incisively.
Still it was Villarreal's home territory and the intensity of their work ethic, plus the second half influx of experience and quality in Joan Capdevila and Guiseppe Rossi, left the Austrian group winners defending ever deeper. Although Nilmar stung Gustafsson's palms, it was a corner from Damián Escudero that slapped off the crossbar on the hour which came nearest to an equaliser. It was that kind of night for Villarreal.