Villarreal warm up for Liverpool by clinching CL berth
BARCELONA: Villarreal warmed up for its decisive Europa League semifinal at Liverpool by clinching a berth in Europe's top competition on Sunday.
Villarreal's comfortable 2-0 win at regional rival Valencia guaranteed it will finish in fourth place in the Spanish league, giving the club a Champions League playoff spot next season.
The "Yellow Submarine" can now focus on earning a spot in this season's Europa League final. Villarreal heads to Anfield on Thursday for the second leg of the semifinal, a week after Adrian Lopez's stoppage-time goal gave it a slim 1-0 advantage in their tie.
Roberto Soldado was the only player to return to Villarreal's starting 11 from its first-leg win over Liverpool. And the former Valencia striker excelled as a playmaker, setting up Samuel Garcia's 14th-minute opener before Lopez continued his strong form with another goal cued by Soldado on the break in the 33rd.
The win gave Villarreal a six-point lead over Athletic Bilbao, with two rounds left and a better head-to-head record.
"We will enjoy what we have achieved today because we have put the finish on an extraordinary league campaign," said Villarreal coach Marcelino Garcia.
Earlier, Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia led Bilbao's 2-1 fightback over 10-man Celta Vigo, leapfrogging the visitors in the standings.
Espanyol also got a much needed 1-0 win over Sevilla to keep its distance from the relegation zone, while Getafe kept alive its hopes of staying up by winning 2-0 at Deportivo La Coruna.
Fabian Orellana struck first for Celta in the 13th minute, but two rash fouls by Celta defender Gustavo Cabral in a span of four minutes swung the match in Bilbao's favor.
Aduriz equalized in the 38th from the penalty spot after being pulled down by Cabral, taking his tally to 18 league goals this campaign.
Cabral was sent off following a second clash shortly after, grazing Aduriz's face with his boot while the Spain striker was prone on the ground with play stopped.
"(His) second card was for an absurd act. He didn't have to hit my face ... so the referee did the right thing," Aduriz said.
Garcia put Bilbao ahead in the 72nd after he kicked the ball while on his back following a collision in the area.
In Barcelona, Felipe Caicedo finished off the rebound of a long strike by Marco Asensio that came off the post for a 52nd-minute winner.
Espanyol defender Alvaro Gonzalez wept while his teammates celebrated their first win in six rounds, which pushed them up into 14th place and five points from the drop zone.
"I think we are close," said Espanyol midfielder Victor Sanchez. "It was very tough, hard fought, but we knew how to get the win, which was what we needed. I hope it makes the difference."
Sevilla, which hosts Shakhtar Donetsk in the other Europa League semifinal on Thursday after their 2-2 draw in Ukraine, stayed in seventh place despite remaining winless on the road in the league this season through 18 away matches.
Getafe continued its turnaround under coach Juan Esnaider, earning a second win to go with a draw in the last three rounds.
Pedro Leon capped a quick buildup in the 41st, and his corner kick was deflected in by Carlos Vigaray to seal the win after Deportivo had been left a man down by Celso Borges' second booking.
"Since Esnaider arrived we have changed our attitude," Leon said.
Getafe rose into a three-way tie on points with Sporting Gijon and Rayo Vallecano.
At Mestalla Stadium, Valencia's players wore shirts with their mothers' last names for Mother's Day in Spain.
On Saturday, all three title challengers won. Barcelona leads Atletico Madrid on head-to-head goal difference with Real Madrid one point behind in third place.