As Villarreal head towards this Thursday’s semi-final match up against Porto, it is worth looking back to our history, brief how it is. Villarreal have experienced the joys and sorrows of a semi-finals in European competition before. [Twice actually - this post focuses on our most recent, the 2005-2006 Champions League run into the semi-finals.] We all know it, and we all remember it, no matter how many times we try and wipe those memories out of our eyes. Exactly five years ago today. Second leg. Arsenal with a 1-0 lead from the match in London. 90th minute, a penalty given. Juan Roman Riquelme, the chance to reach to the heavens of football folklore.
The penalty, had Riquelme scored, would not have won the match, of course. But it would have provided Villarreal with the two most important things they needed: time and belief. But it was not to be, and Villarreal's fairy-tale run through the Champions League, unbelievable as it was, came to an end.
The two legs against Arsenal were tight, nervy affairs. In the first leg, Villarreal started off looking like they were just happy to be there, and paid the price as they were put on the back foot early. Arsenal actually took a lead in the 12th minute of the match at Highbury, but Thierry Henry, after heading the ball into the net off of a Robert Pires pass, was incorrectly called offsides, and the goal was nullified. The teams scrapped out a few chances as the first half progressed, and Diego Forlan managed to put a real threatening shot on goal, only to be turned away by Villarreal nemesis Jens Lehmann. In the 41st minute, however, resulting from a corner, of course, Aleksander Hleb scampered with the ball towards the goal line, then passed back against the face of goal for Kolo Toure to slot home. Arsenal had a 1-0 lead, but nearly gave it up minutes later when Jose Mari was brought down in the box by Gilberto Silva, but without a whistle from the referee. The second half was more hanging on by Villarreal than anything. Arsenal had the opportunities to break the match and the tie open, but they could not find their way into the net. Chances for Gilberto, Ljunberg, and Henry all went lacking for the Gunners. In the end, Villarreal were fairly content to have closed out Highbury’s European history with only a one-goal deficit to take back to El Madrigal.
The second leg will forever be known for Riquelme's missed penalty. It is an image that surely haunts Riquelme, adding a fog to the sense of unhappiness that he has always carried. The guilt should not rest on Riquelme's shoulders alone, although in the history books it tends to. Villarreal had their chances on that night in El Madrigal. Early in the first half, Senna latched on to a Riquelme pass, only to shoot straight at Lehmann. Guillermo Franco specifically had excellent opportunities in the second half to put Villarreal on equal terms, but his headed shots lacked authority and accuracy. In the 88th, Villarreal were given that glimpse of hope that is so rare but so wonderful, with time slipping away and assured defeat in the offing. Jose Mari was taken down in the box by Gael Clichy, and suddenly the world brightened. We all know how the story ended, but during those three minutes of possibility, Villarreal fans around the world floated on hope and anxiety. President Roig must have lived and died a thousand times in those 180 seconds. And in the end, it was tragedy reflecting from a joyful moment. Villarreal conceded defeat, 1-0 on aggregate, to a great Arsenal team.
Of course, the agonizing defeat in the second leg of the semi-finals did not tell the whole story of that wonderful season, and it would not be right to look back to that campaign and only focus on that painful two-legged tie, no matter the fact that we are looking ahead to a new semi-final opportunity today. No, there was glory that year. Spectacular, breathtaking, perfect joy.
The Champions League campaign of 2005-2006 was one that made me a fan for life, and in some ways, built an overachieving underdog character for Villarreal CF. Riquelme, Arruabarrena, Forlan, Senna, Josico, Sorin, Javi Venta - players that will go down in Villarreal history as heroes. They did not hang their heads on that April night in 2006 when Arsenal were declared the victors. There was pain, throughout the Villarreal ranks. But there was pride. This team, rising from a small town near the Mediterranean that most people had never heard of, carried their fans beyond anywhere they could have imagined. Villarreal lost in the 2005-2006 semi-finals, but they set the stage for a team that would not fade quietly in the night.