If anyone had told Villarreal fans ten years ago that exactly a decade later, they would be in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, none would have respectfully believed it.
2012 was the year they were relegated to the Segunda Division in Spain after an utterly disappointing season, but just a year later they were back in the top-tier after securing a second-placed finish on the final day of the league campaign. It would turn out to define their rise to European glory just seven years later.
The period between 2013/14 and 2019/20 was dotted with consistency as they slowly developed their youth systems and crammed the senior squad with young blood – from Pau Torres and Rodri to Samuel Chukwueze and Yeremy Pino – players who played a consequential role in the club’s fortune changing journey to European glory.
2020/21 EUROPA LEAGUE SUCCESS
Having finished the 2019/20 season in fifth place in La Liga, a Europa League spot was in the fray for Unai Emery the next season, and what a season it turned out to be for the Yellow Submarines.
They first met RB Salzburg in the Round of 32 stage, winning 4–1 on aggregate, before dispatching Dynamo Kyiv 4–0 the next round over two legs. However, it was truly from the quarter-finals onwards that Villarreal’s real potential came into play despite their previous high scoring feats. Croatian giants Dinamo Zagreb were ousted by a 3–1 aggregate scoreline, before Emery’s former club Arsenal came calling in the semis.
Having been in-charge of the North London giants over a short spell of 18-months, it could be argued he was put off quite too easily. Legendary French tactician Arsene Wenger even recently claimed Arsenal made a mistake with ‘great’ Unai Emery. Villarreal threw aside the Gunners with a narrow, but fantastic 2–1 aggregate win, before going on to lift the European trophy against Manchester United on penalties.
Having clinched the Europa League title in 2020/21 – the previous season – most would have predicted the Valencian outfit to land higher up the league table than their current 7th position and at the least make it to Europe. But it seems as though Villarreal will have to wait out another campaign to taste European nights once again.
However, despite enduring a torrid domestic season with their shortcomings, winning a first-ever major trophy in their 99-year history poised Villarreal to up the ante in Europe in 2021/22.
2021/22 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE EUPHORIA
Villarreal opened their European account with a UEFA Super Cup final loss to European champions Chelsea – a penalty shootout once again, however this time going the English outfit’s way. And it would only turn out to fuel their hunger for success on the biggest continental stage of all.
They were pit alongside fellow Europa League finalists in 2020/21 Manchester United, Italian heavyweights Atalanta and Swiss Super league champions BSC Young Boys in the Group F of the UEFA Champions League. They ended up second in the group with 10 points, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Red Devils, who handed Unai Emery his first European defeat away from home with a 95th minute stunner on the second matchday.
What was most impressive is how Villarreal didn’t budge an inch at either Juventus or Bayern Munich in the last 16 and quarter-finals respectively. The Bianconeri drew 1–1 at La Ceramica, before the men in yellow bulldozed the Italian giants with an emphatic 3–0 win at Allianz Stadium a fortnight later.
If that was impressive in an attacking sense, their defensive abilities were on highlight on the quarters against German champions Bayern Munich, in what could be touted as arguably their most impressive European two-legged victory till date. The Yellow Submarines conceded just one goal over two legs, keeping star marksman Robert Lewandowski at bay despite him scoring the Bavarians’ only goal. Nonetheless, it was youngster Samuel Chukwueze who grabbed the headlines with an 88th minute counterattack finish that silenced the Allianz Arena to the drop of a pin, settling a 2–1 aggregate win with Villarreal’s only shot on target in the second leg.
Failing to muster previous momentum, Liverpool dismantled Villarreal at Anfield in the first leg of the semi-finals as Jurgen Klopp tactically ousted Unai Emery’s side with a 2–0 win. And despite drawing in all their powers with a superb 2–0 lead in the first-half of the second leg, Villarreal couldn’t hold out the Reds for much longer, succumbing to three second-half goals and losing 5–2 on aggregate.
WHAT NEXT FOR EMERY’S OUTFIT?
Their fairytale journey poises them to rank high among the underdog stories that have emerged out of Europe in recent decades. According to statistics from online football betting sites, Villarreal are backed to excel domestically next season, but repeating their feats will certainly not be straightforward as we have seen in the past. Their European qualification hangs in the balance and one can only predict what the small-town giants have in store further down the lane.
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Villarreal’s story is one for the ages and the Yellow Submarines have the firepower to bring about a lot more upsets in the future. However, to maintain their reputation as heavyweight killers they will first have to maintain consistency within the squad, starting with keeping hold of manager Emery.