They’ve done it. Villarreal’s stunning fairytale in the Champions League continues to be written after they rescued a late draw against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena to fire themselves through to their first semi-final since 2006.
Unai Emery has built something special in the province of Castellon over the last two years and he’s already proven that his tactical prowess isn’t just exclusive to the Europa League where he holds the most titles as a manager (four).
Having brushed aside Juventus in the last round, the Yellow Submarine disposed of Bayern, to finally grab a share of Europe’s attention. But for all the brilliant tactics and man-management Emery utilises with his squad, he could not have done it without the players’ gargantuan contributions. Here are some of the stars who have been integral parts of Villarreal’s unlikely European charge.
There are a few names in Emery’s ranks who will be familiar to fans of the Premier League and the EFL Championship with former Tottenham Hotspur trio Etienne Capoue (also Watford), Juan Foyth, and Serge Aurier. Then there is current Spurs loanee Giovani Lo Celso, former Gunner Francis Coquelin and ex-Liverpool left-back Alberto Moreno.
Capoue was always someone who showed glimpses of his talent, and although he was never given much of a chance at Spurs, he became a fan favourite at Watford and his qualities as a midfield general have been carried over to Villarreal where they are becoming widely recognised. For just €2 million, he’s proven to be a steal.
Foyth was a young talent who found it difficult to break into the Spurs side when they had established themselves as one of English football’s strongest sides, while making a nuisance in Europe. Before leaving north London, the Argentine only went on to make 16 Premier League appearances.
At the Estadio de la Ceramica, however, he has established himself as a key first-team player and his versatility to play at right-back and centre-half has made him vital to this incredible run. His excellence on the right side of the backline has made it difficult for his former teammate Aurier to earn more than cameos off the bench.
Lo Celso returned to Spain with a point to prove after his big move to England hadn’t quite gone to plan. Everyone remembers his quality from his Real Betis days - the flair, the passing, the drive - and Emery has been unlocking that since the Argentinian joined in January.
Fellow central midfielder Coquelin has made himself an integral part of Villarreal’s resurgence in Europe and has shown attributes that we never quite got to see at the Emirates Stadium. Moreno has played a major role in Europe on the left side of midfield but was absent in both legs against Bayern having suffered an ACL injury.
The Familiar Faces
Championship supporters, particularly of AFC Bournemouth, will remember the dazzling skill and ability of Dutchman Arnaut Danjuma, the match-winner of the first leg against Bayern. As a rising star in England’s second tier, he was linked with Liverpool on a regular basis but opted to go abroad and it has proven to be the perfect environment for this stage of his career.
His stock continues to rise in the east of Spain and it won’t be long before one of Europe’s elite comes calling for his tremendous talent. For now at least, he is happy with where he is. His role as a second striker alongside last season’s top scorer Gerard Moreno has been a fruitful relationship and they both compliment each other well. It has become a strike partnership that could cause problems for almost any team in Europe and they have been directly involved in 34 goals between them in the league and Europe this term.
Queen’s Park Rangers fans may or may not remember that stalwart midfielder Dani Parejo had a brief loan spell in west London back in 2008 from Real Madrid. He has proven to be a key cog in Emery’s machine, along with Capoue, Lo Celso and Coquelin. They have been deployed as a resolute midfield four in the Champions League and their organisation, matched with a sprinkle of flair, have thwarted one of the greatest attacking sides in the world - they don’t appear to be fazed by any opponent.
There are a lot of Spurs connections with this Villarreal team, so what harm could one more do? Last summer, as part of the club’s rebuild, they tried to lure the Yellow Submarine’s star centre-half and Spain international Pau Torres. An enticing package was put on the table for the defender but he opted to stay in his homeland to realise his Champions League dream, something that wasn’t going to happen at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this year.
🚫 1 goal conceded
⛔️ 1x dribbled past
💨 2 successful dribbles
😤 3 blocked shots
🤝 10 long balls completed
🔥 12 clearances
✅ 100% take-on success
While people would have understood his reasoning to stay for this year, many thought that his dream would have not been realised with a team that was more equipped for the Europa League. Something has just clicked for them in the Champions League though and there is a strong sense of unity and a will to work for one another - that, along with the added bits of quality, has helped Torres’ dream take a giant step closer to coming true. His commanding performances at the heart of defence have been part of a colossal collective effort and he is now enriched with more experience at the highest level.
The Golden Oldie
You may have thought that former Real Madrid defender Raul Albiol would be on a beach right now, enjoying retirement. Not quite yet, he’s still going strong at the age of 36 as Torres’ defensive partner and mentor
His performance at the Allianz on Tuesday night was spectacular, a real rolling back the years kind of display. He was quick to snuff out any impending danger and if he was caught out, he was quick to put his body on the line. As part of the Los Blancos side that won La Liga in 2011-12, he brings some vital experience.
He is showing beyond doubt that age is just a number and he is a great role model for young players who are hoping to have a career as long as his. His knowledge will be insightful for the development of Torres, but when the going gets tough, no defender in the squad knows better than him on how to show composure in the nervy situations.
There is such a perfect harmony in this group of players and while they are not the most glamorous stars, they have excelled through their teamwork. There is still a long way for them to go for the fairytale to get its happy ending, but right now, you’ll find it hard to bet against this giant killer.
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