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Villarreal, The Journey.

Tuesday 14th February 2012
It was a miserable night for the home fans on 21st December at Villarreal's El Madrigal stadium as they saw a gutless performance by their side who were eliminated from the Copa del Rey by an opposition from the third tier of Spanish football. It cost coach Juan-Carlos Garrido his job despite the Villarreal hierarchy initially deciding to stick with their man despite poor league form. Villarreal sat, morbid, at the end of 2011 amongst the relegation zone.

Villarreal are based in the Valencia community of Castellon, a tiny little city. The charming 24,890 seater El Madrigal stadium holds more than total population of the city. El Submarino Amarillo (the Yellow Submarine ) were founded in 1923 and have spent most of their existence in the lower echelons of Spanish football.  Villarreal only managed to reach the Segunda (Spanish Second Division) in 1992 and then the Primera in 1998 before going straight back down again, Villarreal would earn promotion again the next year though. They would soon establish themselves as a Primera club over the next few years with several mid-table finishes. This is quite an achievement itself for this tiny club but things were about to dramatically exceed expectations.

2004 saw the Yellow Submarine play European football for the first time when they qualified for the UEFA Cup via the now defunct Intertoto Cup. Villarreal would have an incredible run in the competition, reaching the Semi-Final where they were beaten by near neighbours and eventual champions Valencia. 2004 had seen the arrival of one man who would transform the image of Villarreal for many years to come, Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Pellegrini won Argentine Championships with River Plate prior to his appointment in Spain, and his sublime work at his new club would earn him great respect among the footballing community, eventually leading to a move to giants Real Madrid. The Santiago born manager introduced a beautiful flowing style of one-touch passing football that would make Villarreal the envy of much bigger Spanish teams over the years. Pellegrini also had links to several clubs in South American, and was able to harvest some of the brightest talent from that continent and bring them to Spain – often for a pittance. Under Pellegrini's guidance, Villarreal would make a habit of signing players for small fees and getting the most out of them which, after plying their trade in such a well-oiled machine, resulted in them being sold for a great profit. The club was also able to take players whose careers had declined and turn them into world beaters. Two players in particular would take Villarreal to places only existent in their dreams.

The club signed Uruguayan striker Deigo Forlan in 2004 after he had struggled to find goals at Manchester United. Forlan became a revelation in Spain by scoring 25 goals in his first season and winning the Pichichi Trophy (Spanish golden boot).  Juan Roman Riquelme also become an influential player in this Villarreal side. A talented playmaker, Riquelme had flopped at Barcelona and was shipped out to Villarreal on loan in 2003. His good form allowed the club to make the deal permanent and soon Pellegrini had built the entire team around him. Both these players would help fire Villarreal to a dream finish of third place in La Liga and the dream of playing in Europe's top club competition, the Champions League.

Despite their inexperience Villarreal would embark on an extraordinary run in Europe's premier club competition, but it wasn't easy. In qualification for the group The Yellow Submarine managed to beat Everton over two tricky legs and then found themselves in a tough group. Villarreal were grouped with Manchester United, Benfica and Lille but, remarkably, managed to remain unbeaten and progressed by finishing top. Villarreal were handed a good draw with Rangers in the last sixteen and progressed on away goals after drawing both legs. Villarreal then snuck past Inter Milan in the quarters, again, on away goals – 2-2 the aggregate score.

Villarreal amazingly reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, and were drawn against Arsenal, however, this tremendous run would come to an end. Arsenal took a 1-0 lead going into the second leg at El Madridgal. The Gunners saw off most of Villarreal's attacks and the game remained goalless until late in the second half when Yellow Submarine substitute Jose Mari was fouled in the box and Villarreal were given the chance to level things up. Unfortunately for the Spaniards Riquelme's penalty was saved by Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann and Villarreal were out.

Villarreal's superb run that season was one of hope, and nurturing of talent, a characteristic few managers seem to pertain to. The stars of that season would soon leave the club: Forlan was sold to Athletico Madrid while Riquelme fell out with Pellegrini and was offloaded to Boca Juniors. Villarreal would arguably outdo their Champions League feats by finishing runners up in La Liga ahead of Barcelona in the 2007-08 season. Another two campaigns of Champions League qualification ensured Villarreal were considered among Europe's premier clubs, both in a cultural and footballing sense, a memory that makes their fortunes this season even more astounding.

Villarreal have become relegation candidates, and their efforts in the Champions League this season saw them come away with zero points from six group games. Injuries haven't helped either as their prolific forward Giuseppe Rossi has been missing for most of the season. However, of recent, Villarreal's form is showing signs of recovery under new coach Jose Francisco Molina as they've picked up 11 points since the winter break including a win over Sevilla and a draw with Barcelona. While they may still survive in La Liga, the heady days of Forlan and Riquelme are long gone as Villarreal search for stability. Nevertheless, this humble club have come a long way in the last few years and, for the fans and boardroom, things have to be put in perspective.

 

 
Lee Clifford

Total articles: 8

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