Villarreal used a quick goal and Ruben “Cani” Gracia’s playmaking to earn a hard-fought 2-1 win at home over RCD Espanyol on Thursday, keeping the promoted side undefeated through six rounds in La Liga.
Villarreal stayed in fourth place, two points behind third-placed Real Madrid. Leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are a further two points ahead.
“We hope we can keep this up and stay in the Champions League spots,” Cani said. “We are not going to settle for less, although we do remember that we have just come up from the second division.”
Striker Jeremy Perbet needed 30 seconds to put Villarreal ahead at El Madrigal by volleying in a cross by Hernan Perez that Cani had headed down to him in the penalty area.
Despite the early blow, Espanyol hung in the match thanks to Kiko Casilla’s goalkeeping to stop two shots by Giovani dos Santos before halftime.
Javier Aguirre’s team, which was full of second-choice players, then pressed Villarreal into their penalty area at the start of the second half, but Cani set up substitute Jonathan Pereira to tap in the hosts’ second goal on the counterattack in the 67th minute after streaking down the left flank.
However, Espanyol were not done and forward Sergio Garcia pulled one back in the 80th minute when he spun away from his marker and drilled a shot past goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo to leave the result in doubt until the final whistle.
It was Espanyol’s first loss of the season.
“Both goals that we conceded could have been prevented,” Espanyol coach Aguirre said. “We can lose a game, but maintaining a sense of order is a priority for us. We scrapped and played well, but Villarreal had the answer.”
In other matches on Thursday, Athletic Bilbao fought back for an entertaining 2-1 win over Real Betis Balompie, while Getafe beat visiting RC Celta de Vigo 2-0.
Bilbao dominated the match at the San Mames Barria, which has sections of seating still under construction, with forward Ibai Gomez peppering Betis’ penaly area with crosses from the left wing and hitting the crossbar twice before halftime.
Betis goalkeeper Guillermo Sara saved a penalty taken by Benat Etxebarria in the 58th minute after Markel Susaeta wrong-footed Xavi Torres and was tripped by the midfielder in the area.
In a rare excursion into Bilbao’s area, Betis forward Jorge Molina poked his own rebound from a header saved by Gorka Iraizoz under the goalkeeper from a tight angle to snatch the lead in the 62nd minute.
Bilbao kept pushing forward and their 73rd-minute equalizer came through Oscar de Marcos, who went on in the 70th minute and soon raced in to head Benat’s cross between Sara’s legs.
Defender Mikel San Jose was then left unmarked to head in Gomez’s cross — the first one he sent in from the right side — to notch Bilbao’s winner in the 82nd minute.
Molina almost grabbed a draw for Betis, who have just one victory this season, with a shot off the post four minutes from time.
“To be fair, Athletic should have gone in halftime ahead,” Betis coach Pepe Mel said. “From there on, with the saved penalty, the sensation that I take away is that we did enough to take a point.”
Getafe centerback Lisandro Lopez scored one goal and set up another to give the Madrid-based team their second victory of the season.
Lopez headed in a cross by Pedro Leon a minute before halftime and the Argentine flicked on Leon’s corner for Alvaro Arroyo to double the advantage five minutes after the break.