(or, from the Amazing Blondel to the Incredible Hulk)
All right, so maybe I'm the only one who remembers the 1970's band Amazing Blondel.... Club Brugge's midfielder Blondel wasn't really that amazing, but I do remember him--and so should Cani, since Blondel was the guy that nearly sliced his leg open and only got a yellow card for it. So, as we prepare to take on Porto, including their striker Givanildo Vieira de Souza (a/k/a Hulk), let's review how Villarreal has made it this far--dispatching the Dutch league leaders, the second-placed teams in Serie A and the Bundesliga along the way.
Actually, we should start by remembering how Villarreal even got in the competition. They finished seventh in La Liga last year; at first Villarreal thought they would be admitted into the Europa League since Sevilla had won the Copa del Rey in addition to qualifying for Europe, but were told that was not the case.
However, UEFA decided Mallorca (who had finished fifth) had fallen afoul of the "Financial Fair Play" rules, as they had filed for bankruptcy and hadn't paid numerous transfer fees for the players who had helped them qualify for Europe. So they were pitched out, to the fury of the Barrellets supporters, and Villarreal were placed into the final qualifying round of the Europa League.
The Europa League is, shall we say, a work in progress, combining as it does three former UEFA competitions (two of which, the Intertoto Cup and Cup Winner's Cup, ignored by almost everyone) into one lengthy event. For clubs from Europe's lesser leagues, the qualifying rounds, which began on July 1st this year, represent a chance to pick up some cash that can seem like a lot when the entire league is run on a shoestring. Even little places like Andorra get three teams in the qualifying rounds!
But the action really starts when the teams from the larger leagues come in, either in the final qualifying round or the group stage proper. Usually a team like Villarreal ends up traveling to a place you've never heard of to play a team you've never heard of. Success is not guaranteed (remember Villarreal lost to Maribor several years ago) but usually the opposition is not particularly strong. And so it proved this time, as Villarreal was drawn against Dnepr Mogilev from Belarus. The Submarine won 5-0 in Villarreal and then 2-1 in the return leg in Mogilev.
The home leg was noteworthy for Marchena and Valero getting their first goals for the team; the second I remember very little about, except that Cristóbal picked up two yellow cards and essentially disappeared after that. Oh, and because Mogilev is near Chernobyl, Villarreal took vacuum-packed food on their trip to avoid the local produce. Somehow I doubt that will be remembered by the team as one of their highlights.
The group phase
The teams that try to do well in the Europa League are often teams on the rise who view this competition as a steppingstone to bigger and better things rather than a burden. Many of these teams come from leagues with only one or two CL positions.
Clubs from stronger leagues tend to treat the whole thing as a lark (hello, Getafe!) or, while they try to make it out of the group phase, they don't want to work too hard at it, figuring they and their supporters can get excited once the season is further along and the knockout stage begins.
That certainly seemed to be how Villarreal approached their group matches. Juan Carlos Garrido tried an innovative lineup, shall we say, in the first group game in Zagreb, and Villarreal lost 2-0. Fortunately there was only a radio stream and no Villarreal supporters were in Croatia to see it, as the performance was rather dreadful.
We then came home and defeated Club Brugge 2-1 (this was the match when Cani and Blondel had their little meeting) before two nerveracking matches against PAOK Salonika. We won at home 1-0 with a goal from Marco Ruben, we lost in Greece 1-0 to a late goal off a corner. I remember the Greek fans throwing flares on the pitch more than I remember the game, in all honesty. At that point the group was pretty tight and we had little margin for error.
Our first "must-win" game of the competition came on December 1st at El Madrigal: Villarreal vs. Dinamo Zagreb. The first fifteen minutes belonged to Zagreb, but López came up big several times. After that, though, it was almost all Villarreal. Ruben won a penalty, converted by Rossi, then Ruben and Rossi scored later. But the man of the match had to be the Zagreb keeper, Ivan Kelava. Watch the video and you'll see what I mean. Save after save--Valdés's stop of Santi's shot may have been the save of the year against us, but Kelava kept this score from being ridiculous. And saved a Marcos Senna penalty near the end to boot. He needs to move on to a bigger stage than the Croatian league, I'd say!
goalkeeper Ivan Kelava vs. Villarreal (via TheNKDinamoZagreb)
Brugge had helped us by drawing with PAOK, so we went to Belgium having already qualified for the round of 32 but wanting to finish first in the group. We defeated Club Brugge (who had little to play for at that point) by 2-1, the first goal coming from a Rossi header, the second from a penalty won and converted by the Bambino.
Villarreal won the group, PAOK defeated Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia to finish second. The Zagreb ultras attacked a PAOK bus before the game--I can't remember what punishment Dinamo earned as a result.
Our reward is a trip to Italy....
It was back to Switzerland for the draw for the round of 32, and the round of 16--a smaller crowd in the auditorium now. And it seemed that having made it through the ordeal of the group phase, Submarine fans were beginning to get excited about the competition. Villarreal at least avoided teams in the cold-weather countries, but drew one of the teams many of us had hoped to avoid--Napoli, lying second in Serie A. This pairing was worthy of a quarterfinal or semifinal, but there it was.
Villarreal's performance in Napoli was noteworthy for several things: Mario's performance at right back and the failure of Cicinho to get on the pitch against a team he knew very well; Senna's injury that forced him from the match, replaced by Marchena in his first appearance in midfield; and a fine defensive performance from the Yellow Submarine that frustrated Edinson Cavani and his Napoli mates. In fact, the best chance of the game fell to Borja Valero just before the end, but the Napoli keeper was equal to the task.
And so to our second must-win game: the second leg in El Madrigal, which was one of those incredibly vibrant, end-to-end cup-tie affairs which could have gone any which way. We were cheered by Cavani starting on the bench (Napoli had a game against Milan on the weekend and were hoping to rest him), but Napoli went a goal ahead and Diego López made his save of the season to keep us in it in the first half-hour, we scored two goals in five minutes before the break, and though the "Matador" Cavani hit the post and forced López into a couple of other fine saves in the second half, Villarreal survived.
If you'd like to see very full highlights (and listen to Napoli's announcer screaming throughout them, which is quite fun), this YouTube clip is for you:
Villarreal-Napoli 2-1 (24/02/11) Raffaele Auriemma Highlights - Europa League HD By MikyNap (via MikyNapTest)
Now it's on to Germany and Holland....
Now we were into the round of 16 of the Europa League for the first time, traveling to Leverkusen to take on Bayer. Wakaso Mubarak started in Europe for the first time (evidently so nervous he forgot to put on the proper shirt) and acquitted himself well.
The Submarine left Santi and Nilmar on the bench, going with a defensive lineup, and it was 1-1 at the half. Shortly after Nilmar came on he scored a golazo, a defensive error allowed Bayer to tie it up, and then in the last minute of injury time Nilmar ran past a tired defender and scored again for a 3-2 victory.
The return leg at El Madrigal was somewhat anticlimactic. Cazorla and Rossi put Villarreal 2-0 up and though Gonzalo turned a cross into his own net late on, there was never any question of the eventual outcome. 5-3 on aggregate to Villarreal. And then came the draw for the quarterfinals. Any Villarreal fans watching the draw had to be very proud to see Hernán Sanz, representing this club from a little town in Spain that had made it to the final eight.
The quarterfinal and semifinal draw gave us a match against the Dutch league leaders, followed in all likelihood by a match against the Portuguese league winners! But the Submarine took care of the first part of the challenge easily enough, defeating Twente 8-2 over two legs as detailed here and here.
Oh look, it's the Iberia League!
Three teams from the Portuguese league are in the semifinal, together with one club from the Valencian Community that plays in yellow. And by general agreement the two best teams left are Porto and Villarreal, but unfortunately only one of them can make it to Dublin on May 18. Benfica and Braga play in one semi; we face Porto in the other, with the first leg in Portugal on April 28, and the return leg May 5 at El Madrigal.
There will be plenty of time to discuss Porto's team and preview the matches to come; for now let's just revel in the fact that a Villarreal team that only made it into this competition "by the cat flap" (h/t Tim Stannard, La Liga Loca) has reached the final four, providing more than a few moments of European magic along the way. A fine accomplishment from a fine team. Endavant, a triomfar, a guanyar Villarreal!!