Madrid: Villarreal stayed hard on the heels of the La Liga leaders when a Cedric Bakambu double secured a 2-0 win at home to Sporting Gijon on Sunday as Gary Neville was again denied a debut victory with Valencia in Spain`s top flight.
Villarreal occupy Spain`s fourth Champions League qualification berth with half the season played, the position Valencia and Singapore billionaire owner Peter Lim would at the least have expected to be in at this stage of the campaign.
However, Sunday`s 2-0 defeat at Real Sociedad means Neville has presided over three draws and two defeats in five La Liga outings, including a 1-0 reverse at Villarreal, since he took over from Nuno Espirito Santo last month.
Congo forward Bakambu opened the scoring for Villarreal in the 26th minute at the Madrigal when he tapped in Roberto Soldado`s pass and doubled the home side`s lead six minutes into the second half with a curling effort that went in off a post.
Coached by Marcelino Garcia, Villarreal are through to the last 32 of this season`s Europa League and play their first leg at home to Italian side Napoli on Feb. 18.
With 39 points from 19 matches in La Liga, they are a point behind third-placed Real Madrid, who thrashed Deportivo La Coruna 5-0 at the Bernabeu on Saturday in Zinedine Zidane`s debut as coach, and eight points clear of Celta Vigo in fifth.
Spanish and European champions Barcelona, 4-0 winners at home to Granada on Saturday, are a point ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid, who can recapture top spot with a win at Celta later on Sunday.
Marcelino said Villarreal, who spent a season in the second division in 2012-13 and have finished sixth the past two campaigns, were "more competitive" this term. "We have been improving all the time since we returned to the first division," he told a news conference.
"I am proud of what we have achieved in the first half of the season," added the former Real Zaragoza and Sevilla manager. "Let`s see if we can maintain this level."
A quickfire Jonathas double at the Anoeta stadium in San Sebastian secured victory for Sociedad against Valencia in a match in which both sides wasted a host of chances.
The Basque side took the lead in the 79th minute when Jonathas bundled in a deflected Carlos Martinez cross and the Brazilian made it 2-0 three minutes later with a powerful header from another Martinez centre.
Valencia, who play Rapid Vienna in the Europa League next month, have 23 points in 10th, while Sociedad climbed to 14th on 20 points.
"It was extremely important to finish off the first half of the season with three points," Jonathas, who has struggled for form since joining from Elche in July last year, told Spanish television.
"I am thrilled with the two goals as I have been through a tough time but the club has always backed me," he added.