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Jack Flanagan has a look at the incredible rise of Villarreal in the past couple of decades pinpointing the reasons behind their success.
After a cautious 90 minutes of football, the final whistle was blown at El Madrigal on Thursday night to an eruption of noise and a flurry of yellow flags from the stands. Villarreal CF, relegated to the second tier of Spanish football just 4 years ago, had just beaten Liverpool, the 5-time European Cup winners, by 1 goal to nil, in the first leg of the semi-final of the Europa League. For a club that has yet to visit a final of a major European competition, this is about as good as it has ever been.
Currently lying 4th in La Liga with 3 games left to play, Villarreal have had a supremely good season. A 4th place spot in the league would reward them with a coveted Champions League place, but the fans and players of this small-town club also have their eyes on its smaller brother – the Europa League. Just 90 minutes away from the final, and with a 1-goal advantage, everything is to play for.
To get this far in Europe, they’ve seen off some talented opposition. Despite a relatively tame group of Dinamo Minsk, Viktoria Plzen and Rapid Vienna, Villarreal have more than met their match in the knockout stages. Eliminating a Napoli side who kept up with the mighty Juventus domestically for most of the season was the first hurdle they overcame, before sending Bayer Leverkusen packing over two legs without conceding a goal. Then came Sparta Prague, who they hit for 6 over two legs. This is no fluke. Only Real, Atlético and Barca have lost less games domestically than Villarreal this season. In fact, these 3 sides know Villarreal’s talents all too well. The Valencian side have beaten Real and Atléti at home, and mounted a comeback from 2-0 down against Barcelona last month to draw 2-2. Impressive, to say the least.
To win whilst playing an attractive brand of football is, for me, the ultimate goal. Villarreal have personified this in recent times, particularly this season. They have a young but gifted squad of players, filled with wise acquisitions. Eric Bailly has established himself as a rock at the heart of their solid defence (who, have in fact, conceded less goals than Real in the league this season). He was picked up from Espanyol for a paltry €5.7m in January. Jonathan Dos Santos arrived from the murky depths of Barcelona’s squad in 2014 to provide stability in midfield, which he has done so accordingly. Up top, the smart acquisitions have continued. Cédric Bakambu has been a revelation this season, scoring 22 goals in 43 appearances in all competitions so far, after arriving for €7.5m last summer. Another wise addition was Denis Suárez, the talented attacking midfielder with a point to prove after being let go by both Barcelona and Manchester City. Suárez has 6 assists in just 12 games in the Europa League this season, including the unselfish gift of a pass to Adrián for the winner on Thursday night. Some are even saying he should travel with the Spain squad to the Euros. A push, perhaps, but his talents are clear.
Add all of this to the established core of the squad, and you have, well, a pretty good side. Bruno, el capitán and a true stalwart, has been at the club since 2006 and is one of their most talented players, with incredible vision. Manu Trigeros, a creative midfielder, has risen through the club’s ranks to make 132 appearances for the first team. All good clubs need stability, and the fact that these two have been at the club for a cumulative time of 16 years helps to personify that.
As many in the small town of Vila Real, where the team hails from, would tell you, it has not always been this way. What they would also tell you is that there is one man whose investment of both time and money has been pivotal to their groundbreaking success in recent years – and this man is Fernando Roig. A Spanish billionaire by name, Roig set about investing in Villarreal in 1997. He had an ambitious but simple plan – put Villarreal in the top flight. He set about improving El Madrigal and attracting fans, which, in a town of 50,000 people, is not the easiest task. But like all good clubs, the football did the talking. Lurking in the 3rd and 4th tiers of Spanish football for virtually their entire history up until 1992, the club leapt from Segunda mediocrity to a promotion-challenging outfit under Roig’s supervision. Finishing 4th in his first season as owner, they managed to beat Las Palmas in the playoffs, ensuring their promotion. Although relegated in their first season in the top flight, Villarreal bounced straight back again the following season. Since the Millennium, the club has never looked back. They’ve been in the top flight of Spanish football for every season bar one since 2000. Even when they were relegated in 2012, they only stayed down for a year, before rebounding and finishing 6th in the top flight the following season. Remarkable.
Normally, newly promoted teams have a hard time of it in the top flight. Across Europe, most struggle for survival, and some don’t even achieve that. Villarreal are an exception. In their 15 years in the top flight since 2000, they have finished in the bottom half just twice. In the last 3 years, they’ve finished inside the top 6. Some of their achievements have been quite remarkable. In the 2004-05 season, they finished 3rd in the league, sealing qualification for the Champions League for the first time in their history. In the Champions League the following year, they reached the semi-finals, eventually succumbing to Arsenal over 2 legs. If Lady Luck was on their side, things may have turned out very differently. Villarreal lost out to Arsenal thanks to a single goal from Kolo Touré at Highbury. Juan Román Riquelme, one of the greatest players to ever pull on the famous all-yellow kit, missed a penalty in the dying embers of the 2nd leg at El Madrigal that would’ve forced extra time. Interestingly, it was the same Kolo Touré who misjudged the flight of Bruno’s pass on Thursday night to allow Denis Suárez in behind to set up Villarreal’s winner.
As far as Europe goes, this Europa League campaign has not been an isolated European adventure. There have been many. In the 2008-09 season, they lost to Arsenal again in the Champions League, this time in the quarter-finals. 2 years later, they reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, losing to Porto who eventually went on to win it. In the last 20 years, Villarreal have gone from an average Segunda side to one that makes regular appearances in the knockout stages of Europe’s elite competitions. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Arguably their greatest achievement in recent times involves the 2007-08 La Liga season, where they finished 2nd (!), just 8 points behind the winners Real Madrid. Note that this was also a full 10 points above a Rijkaard-coached Barcelona side containing Xavi, Messi, Iniesta, Puyol and the like. Note also how many of the achievements I have noted are in different seasons too. The Yellow Submarine just refuses to lie down.
Taking a 1-0 victory to Anfield next week, Villarreal are on the cusp of achieving something they have never done before – reaching a European final. For a club like them, who have spent most of their history in the lower swathes of Spanish football, it would be an extraordinary achievement. And who’s to say they can’t do it? They have a solid victory in the bag, and a talented group of players who have proved their worth on many an occasion this season.
To put the cherry upon the icing on the cake, Villarreal must finish 4th in La Liga and qualify for the Champions League. Tackling a dual league and European challenge is among the hardest tasks in modern football, but if Villarreal reach a Europa League final along with a 4th placed domestic finish, you could well argue that this is the greatest season in the club’s history. They have to play Valencia at the Mestalla next weekend, a local derby and a tough ask, but then face Deportivo at home followed by Sporting away on the last day of the season. Both of the last 2 sides are in the bottom half, with Sporting in the relegation zone. With a 4-point cushion over nearest challengers Celta de Vigo, it’s in their hands.
For neutrals and locals alike, Villarreal are the gift that keeps on giving. To see a 25,000 capacity stadium rocking in a town just double the size of the stadium itself is a rare, but beautiful sight. Few would’ve thought when they entered La Liga that they could compete with Valencia, the big boys from down the road. But they’ve done more than that. In fact, they’re 17 points better off than them so far this year. Villarreal have more than claimed their place amongst Spain’s elite in the past decade, playing an attractive brand of football and picking up remarkable results in the process. Just ask Real, Atlético, Napoli and Leverkusen this season. Are Liverpool next on the hitlist?
Written by Jack Flanagan