Villarreal played 16 matches in the Europa League this year, equivalent to nearly half a La Liga season. There have been highs, there have been lows. Yes, Villarreal-Porto should have been the final, and who knows what would've happened in one game.
But knockout competitions often produce great matchups in the semis and dull finals. And spare a thought for Napoli, who certainly could have made the semifinals with an easier draw.
A lot of pundits (especially in England) dismiss the EL as a rinky-dink competition (do we have to play in it?) and compared to the CL I suppose it is in some ways, especially in the group phase.
But once you get to the knockout rounds, the quality of teams and the purpose with which clubs approach the competition dramatically improves. And that's evident from the list below, the "all-Villarreal Europa League Opponents' XI" chosen by me and my two colleagues. We chose the team based on how these guys played against Villarreal--we really didn't see them otherwise, except for the Porto players in the final.
As it happens, each of the opponents we played (except Dnepr Mogilev) have at least one player in the starting XI, so I've indicated where that team will be playing next year. Dnepr will not be in Europe this year, having finished 8th in the 12-team Belarus Premier League last season.
Drum roll, please!
Goalkeeper-- Ivan Kelava, Dinamo Zagreb. If you look back at our Europa League post you'll see why--he made a string of great saves against Villarreal in El Madrigal. Valdes's save on Cazorla was maybe the best save of the year, but the goalie performance of the year by a visiting 'keeper belongs to Kelava.
Dinamo Zagreb won the Croatian league for the sixth straight season and will try, once again, to make it through the champions' path qualifying rounds to the Champions League proper (they've never succeeded).
Defenders-- Ryan Donk, Club Brugge. (Did you realize he and Borja were at West Brom at the same time?) He battled hard against the Submarine attack. He hasn't yet realized the promise he showed as a member of the Dutch under-21 squad, but is still only 25.
Club Brugge will be in the Europa League again next year.
Gonzalo Castro, Bayer Leverkusen. Wingback who played very well against us in the first game, scoring a goal and looking constantly dangerous. He came off around halftime of the second match for tactical reasons, and we weren't sorry to see him leave.
Bayer Leverkusen have qualified for the group phase of the Champions League.
Andrea Dossena, Napoli. Well, actually it could have been pretty much any of the Napoli defenders, because they played really well at the back--tough, committed, typical Italian team. Dossena played well in both matches. I guess Dossena just needed to get out of Liverpool!
Napoli have qualified for the group phase of the Champions League.
Pablo Contreras, PAOK. Rather like Napoli, PAOK were strong at the back and relied on counterattacking to create opportunities. Contreras was physical (he received yellow cards in both matches) and seemed to put himself about quite a bit, so he got the nod here.
PAOK are currently leading the Greek playoffs to determine the Greek entrant in the third qualifying round of the Champions League.
Midfielders--Bryan Ruiz, FC Twente. The Costa Rican looked dangerous, wasn't afraid to take on Villarreal's defense and try to make things happen. It was soon clear in El Madrigal that it wasn't going to be Twente's night, but "La Comadreja" (the weasel) impressed all the same. Ruiz has scored hatfuls of goals in Belgium and the Netherlands; he has two years left on his contract at Twente, and I'd be interested to see him in Villarreal yellow. Just sayin'.
FC Twente have qualified for the Champions League third qualifying round.
Walter Gargano, Napoli. With those two attacking midfielders, you need a strong presence in central midfield, and Gargano certainly is that. Not a showy player, but a confident and competent one who isn't going to make many mistakes.
Fredy Guarin, Porto. He provided the pass that led to the controversial penalty for Porto's equalizer in the first leg, and scored the second himself. It took him a while to crack the Porto starting lineup, and he didn't do much yesterday in Dublin, but against us he was sublime.
Attackers--Hulk and Falcao, Porto. Falcao's four goals would merit his inclusion, of course (even if one of them was a dodgy penalty decision) as his finishing was simply world-class. And Hulk was the driver of the Porto attack--his strength, size and speed are an astonishing combination. He's apparently signed a new contract at Porto. Their attack is astonishing; if they can shore up their defense they should do quite well.
Porto have qualified for the group phase of the Champions League.
Edinson Cavani, Napoli. It's been an incredible year for "el matador", with 26 goals in Serie A. Against Villarreal he didn't score, but forced several fine saves from López and frankly didn't get consistent service from the other attacking players, which is why I put him in here. Next to Hulk and Falcao, he was the scariest scoring threat we faced in Europe by far.
Bench: De Sanctis (Napoli); Kadlec (Bayer Leverkusen); Campagnaro (Napoli); Janssen (Twente), Hamsik (Napoli), Sammir (Dinamo Zagreb), Muslimovic (PAOK)
All in all, a pretty good team, and the fact almost all of our opponents qualified for the Champions League shows what a hard road Villarreal had to even reach the semifinals. We may see some of these players in the Champions League again next season!