Villarreal making most of their Champions League golden ticket
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It was just before midnight in the Polish coastal city of Gdansk that the night sky was illuminated in yellow. Down on the pitch celebrations were in full swing as Villarreal had just won their first ever major trophy. That mid-May evening last year marked the greatest day in this Spanish club’s history.

There was a small band of supporters who had travelled from Spain’s east coast to be there for the Europa League final against Manchester United, which Villarreal won via a 11-10 penalty shoot-out. Considering the club hail from a town of only 50,000 inhabitants, and are overshadowed by their near city neighbours, Valencia, this represented a good fraction of their entire support-base.

One supporter was even on the pitch, lifting the trophy aloft, and doing a lot more besides on this triumphant night and historic run to silverware. Pau Torres, born in the town and now representing them as their centre back, is Villarreal through and through. Only last week the town’s sports centre was named after the highly-talented defender and despite suitors including Tottenham Hotspur coming after him last summer, he stayed to play in the Champions League for his club.

Had Villarreal not won the Europa League final, they wouldn’t have participated in this season’s Champions League. They finished seventh in the La Liga table, which would have only warranted a Europa Conference League spot at best. Instead, the 25-year-old’s dream became a reality.

And almost 12 months on and Villarreal are still in the Champions League. They have reached the semi finals of this competition before — during the 2005/06 season when they were eliminated by Arsenal — but it feels different now. Capitalising on that Europa League triumph, Europe’s overachievers have advanced past their own expectations.

Emery the knockout king

It helps having a manager who knows a thing or two about knockout football. Unai Emery has earned a reputation as a cup expert; three Europa Leagues with Sevilla, a Ligue 1 title and four domestic cups with Paris Saint-Germain and last season’s triumph with Villarreal all feature on his CV.

Emery, who took over as manager in July 2020 after a difficult spell in the Premier League with Arsenal, has imprinted his highly-detailed tactical approach onto Villarreal. It was apparent as they advanced out of group F, featuring United, Atalanta and Young Boys Bern, and even more so when they eliminated Juventus by winning 3-0 in Turin.

However, it was the job performed against Bayern Munich, one of the favourites for this season’s European crown, that made the headlines. They saw their single-goal advantage from the first leg pegged back in Munich before Samuel Chukwueze stunned all on-lookers by scoring an 88th-minute winner. Dogged defending, quick counters and a strong mentality brought Villarreal past the six-time winners and into a contest with another club of rich history in the competition.

Few would have expected Villarreal to reach this stage of the competition, but they go into the semi final tie with Liverpool unbowed and ready to take another scalp. Their domestic campaign has been average, currently in seventh place, but they have come alive when its mattered in Europe. Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp’s team are still in with a chance of winning each competition to which they entered this term.

Many in the Yellow Submarine’s ranks have come up against Liverpool before. Emery aside — who has managed against the Merseyside club on five occasions and won once, but that was the 2016 Europa League final against Liverpool in Klopp’s first campaign in charge — Villarreal have 10 former Premier League players in their squad.

Juan Foyth, a former Spurs defender, is first-choice at right back and a regular for Argentina. On the opposite flank there’s Pervis Estupinan of Watford and in reserve Alberto Moreno, who played at Liverpool for five seasons.

The entire midfield quartet that held out against Bayern have all tasted English football: Etienne Capoue and Giovanni Lo Celso with Spurs, Dani Parejo with QPR and Francis Coquelin with Arsenal. Throw in Arnaut Danjuma (Bournemouth), Serge Aurier (Spurs) and Vicente Iborra (Leicester City), and it becomes easy to assemble a Premier League XI.

Thus, the conclusions to draw are that Villarreal will know what they are facing. Their cause isn’t aided by the likely absence of striker Gerard Moreno, who is the team’s second top-scorer (12) behind Danjuma (16). Nevertheless, Villarreal remained competitive when the Spanish forward was out at the start of the campaign, and the key to Emery’s approach is that the collective is more important than the individual.

Slowing the pace of the game and trying to hit on the counter will all be part of Emery’s detailed action plan in making it difficult for the high-flying Premier League outfit.

In Poland last May, few would have expected Villarreal to have made so much out of their golden Champions League ticket. They have been written off before, most recently by Bayern, but if anyone can steer Villarreal through a two-legged tie and further than they have ever gone before, it’s Emery.