• The ‘Comandante’ unhinged with two goals and an assist in the first leg of the Conference League qualifier against Hajduk Split, who went ahead in the first minute and scored 4-2 at the end 
  • With his speed, precision, and vision of the game, the striker stirred up Emery’s team, who went into half-time winning 4-1 
  • Ezio scored the 4-2 penalty in the 85th minute and Hajduk Split had a couple of good chances at the end to tighten the tie even more
  • The ‘groguet’ team becomes the first Spanish team to play in the recently born third continental competition 

Morales invited everyone to his house on his first European night, somewhat decaffeinated for Villarreal as it was a bland first leg of the Conference League, emotional for the Comandante, who served his first goals as a ‘groguet’ -two- and an assist in ‘his’ Ciutat de València of a lifetime against a stubborn Hajduk Split, who answered at the beginning and at the end. 

The Croatian team worried in the first minute with a goal from Livaja but José Luis Morales was not going to allow many more rudenesses from the guest, already overcome in the first half: he tied in an individual action in the 14th minute, and after the own goal of Livaja himself, put the calm in minute 33 with another goal and completed the party before the break giving Gerard Moreno the fourth. However, Ezio brought Hajduk Split back with some hope with a 4-2 penalty in the 85th minute. Good start to the first game of a Spanish team in the Conference League.

The afternoon lacked stimulation. In the middle of August, recent preseason, on loan in a Ciutat de València that was not full and returned to Europe in a preview of the third continental competition against the semi-unknown Hajduk Split when the last precedent had been in the semifinals of the Champions League against the powerful and famous Liverpool. A lot of laziness for a Villarreal who took it easy at first and experienced an unpleasant awakening with the goal in the first minute by Biuk, picking up a pass that calmly crossed the area until the final shot. Perhaps offside, but, without VAR, there was uncertainty. 

Hajduk Split wanted to turn what should have been a relaxed summer afternoon for Villarreal into a stormy one. Oblivious to their lack of fame, Valdas Dambrauskas ‘ team showed daring and good taste, guarding the ball, moving it from side to side, and keeping it even when the ‘groguet’ team came to look for it on the opposite field. 

Deprived of Alberto Moreno, Danjuma, and Trigueros due to injury -and with Parejo among other starters on the bench-, it was difficult for Villarreal, predictable and slow in their game, to find the inspiration to break lines when they went down to receive Gerard Moreno. Until the goal, there was still a game to play, but lo and behold, without the need for any previous process or applying good football, there was a boy who knew all the shortcuts of the Ciutat de València and he delightedly showed them to the ‘groguet’ team. What seemed like an innocent cross from Chukwueze turned out to be one of those mischievous and portentous slaloms by José Luis Morales. 

Coquelin, in a match action
Coquelin, in a match action

He gathered speed, quality, and precision in a single action and after a vertiginous double dribble, he stamped a shot adjusted to the strain of the post. The virtues of him always to know the feeling of scoring with Villarreal in his stadium of a lifetime. He already knew that, due to the works of La Cerámica, he was going to change his shirt but not his home until at least January, but his first goal had to come right at his house. Absolute fidelity to himself and to his feelings, the Commander, to restore order. 

Morales gave joy and confidence to Villarreal, who shortly after found the second courtesy of Livaja, who on this occasion finished off a free kick taken by emerging Álex Baena to his own goal. The simple contest that had become complicated no longer had any more suffering or tactical mystery for Villarreal, who could now handle the ball to suppress the Croatian counterattacks. If that, it was already going to stir up the Morales scene. 

Fast but also smart, the striker also took the initiative to decipher one of the unknowns that had eluded the Castellón team. Chukwueze was closed by up to three players when he received on the right wing, so it was a matter of breaking through the spaces that were free. Morales, insightful to undetectable, filtered through the central defenders and struck at the first touch in the one-on-one, converting the Nigerian’s brilliant pass into a goal (minute 34, 3-1). 

Queen giving orders
Queen giving orders

The hyperactive Morales ran as if it were his backyard -in fact, it is-, and he did it again on the last play of the first half to serve Gerard Moreno the fourth on a counterattack. The only consolation for an already weakened Hajduk Split in the second half was that Morales’ fun exercise was already conditioned to Villarreal’s relaxation exercise in the second half so as not to suffer anymore. 

So, by the will of the ‘Comandante’ and his troops, it seemed that there were not going to be many incidents in the second half beyond the changes and Lo Celso’s debut as ‘groguet’. And, indeed, it seemed, because Villarreal was cornered by his calm and that allowed more events to take place than desired. Without Morales -substituted in 72′-, Marco Ezio scored the 4-2 penalty in 85′ and the Croats got closer to 4-3 in a couple of actions. The return is on August 26. In the first leg, the ‘Comandante’ restored order, and Villarreal almost lost it without him. 

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