Rapid 2:1 Villarreal: European glory night in Green & White
On Thursday night Rapid got their Europa League campaign underway against top Spanish outfit Villareal. Trainer Zoran Barisic's hand was forced somewhat in terms of the starting line-up, with first team regulars Thanos Petsos and Thomas Schrammel both missing through injury; whilst defensive lynchpin Mario Sonnleitner was absent owing to the red card he picked up late on in Donetsk. Into central defence came Max Hofmann, whilst Srdjan Grahovic was the more than able deputy for Petsos alongside Stefan Schwab in the centre of the park. An impressive 36,000 fans filled the Ernst Happel Stadium in the hope of seeing their Green & White heroes take something from a very difficult looking assignment.
There was some good early intent from the Hütteldorfers too, with both full backs looking to get on the front foot in an attacking sense, with Mario Pavelic in particular linking up well with Rapid's forwards down the right flank. However after a bright start from Rapid that saw them get to the bi-line on several occasions, the balance of play evened out, and it was the Spaniards who had the first big chance of the evening. A quick throw on was hooked forwards towards Adrian, who cheekily backheeled the ball on the volley into the path of Leo Baptistao, exposing the lack of defensive cover. Under slight pressure from Max Hofmann, Baptistao lashed his shot high over the bar with just Novota to beat (19.). Rapid responded well to Villarreal looking to get on top, and enjoyed a decent spell of pressure, the highlight of which saw a well worked short corner between Kainz, Schaub and Hofmann nearly get the former away into the box (23.).
Yellow Submarines strike on cusp of half time
Shortly afterwards the Hütteldorfers came within a whisker of going ahead: an excellent low cross from Kainz was whipped into the box with no little power, where it was met on the volley by Philipp Prosenik, who guided his crisp left foot effort just wide of Villarreal keeper Barbosa’s right hand post (28.). Just minutes later a looping cross from Kainz threatened to catch Barbosa out, but the ball just drifted beyond the goal (30.). The reminder of the half was an even affair, with little in the way of clear cut chances, with much of the game taking place in the middle third of the pitch. However, just as it looked like Rapid were going to go back into the dressing room with parity intact, Villarreal landed a sucker punch: a quick attack down the right ended with a low ball being played across the face of the six yard box, where it made its way to the back post and Baptistao, who stooped down before planting an accurate header into the near corner, avoiding the desperate efforts of the scrambling Novota - 0:1 and a hard blow to swallow for Rapid on the stroke of half time (44.).
Fired up Rapid come storming back
A positive Rapid side emerged for the second half and within minutes of the restart they had hauled themselves level: Steffen Hofmann floated a free kick from just outside the left hand side of the box into a melee of players, where, after the Villarreal defence had failed to clear their lines the ball fell to Stefan Schwab who made no mistake, poking the ball home from a couple of yards out - 1:1 (50.). With the Ernst Happel Stadium now rocking Zoran Barisic’s side kept pressing and looking for a second that would turn the game on its head. And just minutes after scoring Rapid found another: a Louis Schaub cross broke loose in the box, and after getting to the ball first Philipp Prosenik was hauled down by Bonera - penalty! With a calm head required Steffen Hofmann stepped up, and without flinching sent the keeper the wrong way, tucking the ball into the bottom right hand corner with an ice cool finish - 2:1 (54.)!
Composed Rapid hold Villarreal at bay
After the breathless start to the second half Rapid began managing the game in a professional manner. There were few clear cut chances at either end, but the Hütteldorfers continued to carry threat on their forays forwards, whilst their Spanish opponents were finding space at the other end of the pitch hard to come by. Suarez managed to create a moment of danger when he fed the ball into Baptistao, but the lively striker comfortably missed the target (60.). Shortly after Philipp Schobesberger had been introduced into the action in place of Schaub, Flo Kainz made a determined run into the box, but he dragged his low shot somewhat and the ball went the wrong side of the near post (64.). As the raucous crowd ushered in the Rapid Viertel-Stunde in time honoured fashion it was looking good for those in Green & White: Villarreal appeared to be running out of ideas and Rapid were able to repel anything their opponents in yellow could throw at them. With the clock running down however the guests managed to build up a head of steam, and in the 86th minute Rapid were grateful for an excellent challenge from Max Hofmann as he slid in to deny Baptistao as he wound up to shoot from a menacing position (86.).
Injury time drama
The closing minutes turned into somewhat of a breathless affair as Villarreal turned the screw. As the game entered stoppage time a slew of corners and free kicks were delivered into Jan Novota's penalty area, but Dibon and Max Hofmann coped admirably, ably supported by the big Slovak keeper, who twice pulled off decent saves to preserve Rapid's lead. Right at the death it looked like the win might be snatched away from the Hütteldorfers: from a corner the ball dropped to substitute Cedric Bakambu just inches from the goal line. Thankfully from a Green & White perspective he somehow lifted his effort over the crossbar when he looked odds on to score (93.). With the chance went Villarreal's hopes of claiming a point, leaving the valiant Viennese to celebrate claiming another huge scalp as this maturing Rapid side continues to make a name for itself across the continent.