Setién's Villarreal beats Real Madrid 2-1 in Spanish league

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — This will be one for Quiqué Setién to savor.

His Villarreal beat Real Madrid 2-1 on Saturday in a victory that will help rehabilitate the credentials of a coach who spent more than two years away from soccer following his short and painful stint in charge of Barcelona.

The pulsating Spanish league match at Villarreal's remodeled Estadio de la Cerámica could have ended with more goals, especially for the all-yellow hosts.

Gerard Moreno, who missed the World Cup for Spain due to injury, led Villarreal with an assist and a goal against the Spanish and European champions.

Yeremy Pino put Villarreal deservedly ahead in the 47th minute from a pass by Moreno after Ferland Mendy lost possession with an errant pass. A handball by Villarreal’s Juan Foyth allowed Karim Benzema to momentarily level from the penalty spot in the 60th.

But another handball, this time by Madrid defender David Alaba on a pass by Foyth, sent Moreno to take the winner for Villarreal in the 63rd.

Villarreal, which held Madrid to five consecutive draws at its stadium, took the initiative and forced Madrid’s defenders into sloppy passing. Francis Coquelin hit the post in the fifth with a superb shot with the back of his heel while on the turn, slicing the ball from a tight angle past Thibaut Courtois. That pressure led to the breakthrough by Pino just after halftime.

“No doubt, today we played an extraordinary match against an extraordinary team,” Setién said. “We were better in many aspects, kept the action in their half of the field and created our scoring chances. We increased our pressure because we know that if you give them room, they can cause you problems.”

The 40-year-old Pep Reina started in Villarreal’s goal, hours after the club announced it transferred Argentine Gerónimo Rulli to Ajax. Reina blocked a shot by Vinícius Júnior in Madrid's best chance late in the first half.

Setién was considered one of Spain’s brightest coaching minds before he joined Barcelona in January 2020 for his first job with an elite club. He lasted just eight months and was let go following Barcelona’s 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich, its worst loss in recent memory.

The 64-year-old manager returned to coaching only in October when he accepted the challenge of replacing Unai Emery, who left for Aston Villa following his successful run at Villarreal that included a Europa League title and the Champions League semifinals.

Setién has had a turbulent start at Villarreal, drawing in his debut and losing the next three matches. But the team started to win and is playing even better following the World Cup break. It beat Valencia in a regional derby before taking down Madrid to climb into fifth place in the standings.

Setién, known for his attacking style, tweaked what was a successful scheme under Emery and found another way to win. Pino has moved from the right to the left side of the attack, allowing Samuel Chukwueze to play on the right, while Dani Parejo has moved further back in the midfield to act as its main playmaker.

“With all that happened with the coaching change and the controversy that it created, we really, really wanted to win today,” Pino said.

The loss by Madrid gave Barcelona the opportunity to regain sole lead of the competition on Sunday when it visits Atlético Madrid.

Madrid will pause league play to compete in the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia along with Barcelona, Real Betis and Valencia. Once back in Spain, Madrid will face another trip to Villarreal in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals.

“We didn’t defend like we want to, we left too many spaces between our lines,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “We have to interpret the moments of the game better. Now we have to focus on the Super Cup.”

Madrid’s starting 11 included no Spanish players. According to Opta statistics, this was the first time Madrid did not have a Spaniard on the field at kickoff in a Spanish league game in this century. Other local media said it was the first time this occurred in the history of the club.

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Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press