Halfway into the 2013-14 La Liga campaign, and Villarreal CF sits in fifth place. Within touching distance of the Champions League places at this point was beyond most Yellow Submarine supporters’ wildest dreams.
How did we get here? Let’s look back at some of the key moments from the first half of the season.
Quality summer signings. Looking at what remained of the promotion-winning side, a striker, backup goalkeeper, and center back were required.
Mallorcan duo. Mexican international Giovani dos Santos has entered the Villarreal fold with aplomb, spearheading the team with eight goals, chipping in five assists, and generally displaying his class. What’s more, save for a couple niggling injuries, Gio has not displayed the negative qualities that have dogged him since departing from La Masia. Gio brought defensive central midfielder Tomás Pina with him from the relegated bermellones in a double swoop; Pina has split time with Manu Trigueros in the doble pivote.
"Backup" goalkeeper. Sergio Asenjo’s impact has been less expected, particularly as Juan Carlos looked certain for the #1 role this campaign. But Asenjo took advantage of an injury and has been absolutely outstanding between the sticks, save for one gaffe against Getafe. Despite his hefty €5 million release clause and Diego Mariño’s likely eventual return from Valladolid, Asenjo appears to have forced his way into the long-term Villarreal goalkeeping equation.
Center back. Brazilian Gabriel Paulista’s role is rapidly expanding after manager Marcelino García Toral eased him into the squad and eventually starting XI (partly due to an inevitable injury to Chechu Dorado). Gabriel has looked very assured on the pitch, including neutralizing prolific ex-countryman Diego Costa of Atlético Madrid and taking an elbow without retort for his troubles. But recent rumors of a training ground bust-up with his manager are cause for concern.
Late great escapes. Villarreal sides of yore have been questioned about their intestinal fortitude – whenever the club has had a really big chance, it has fallen a bit short. Pick your poison: reaching the Champions League final; sitting on top of La Liga; reaching the Europa League final; avoiding relegation. But Marcelino has lent a newfound character and fitness beyond that of the Manuel Pellegrini era, save for the last-minute Málaga tally in jornada 15.
a. Almería. 2013-14 opened as 2012-13 ended: with a contest against Almería. Villarreal had never won in the Estadio Juegos Mediterráneos, and the hosts held an advantage with ten minutes left in jornada 1. But Gio carried the Yellow Submarine in his debut, scoring and then assisting Jony Pereira to bring the three points back to Vila-real. That match set the tone for both sides’ seasons to date.
b. Madrid fightback #1. Real Madrid came to Vila-real in jornada 4 in the first real test of the season, and the Yellow Submarine did not disappoint. Rubén Cani gave the hosts a deserved lead, but the legendary merengue counterpunch restored, then broke parity through world-record signings Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. But with heads held high in a raucous Estadio El Madrigal, Villarreal drew level, and if not for ex-goalkeeper Diego López, the hosts could have tallied a manita. Spoils shared in a draw that felt like a win.
c. Elche. Ikechukwu Uche was at the ready in jornada 12 with a 90th-minute winner at Estadio Martínez Valero against our Valencian Community rivals. In a match in which Villarreal did not play at its best, Marcelino’s men found a way to win. That ability is worth a few places in the final league table.
d. Madrid fightback #2. In jornada 13, high-fliers Atlético Madrid visited El Madrigal with only one defeat in all competitions. In Spain, that’s only good enough for second place. The colchoneros were hit by Uruguay call-ups for the World Cup playoff, but that does not diminish that the visitors were second-best for most of the ninety minutes. After an early Villarreal own goal, Uche bundled home a late equalizer to deservedly split the points.
Away form. By starting the season in Almería, Villarreal has played an extra match at El Madrigal. But the Yellow Submarine has as many wins at home as away, and some of the points dropped in Vila-real are poor: a last-minute draw against Málaga and shorthanded losses to Getafe and Sevilla. Admittedly the strong home draws with Atlético and Real Madrid far surpassed the effort at Camp Nou, but the math dictates that a win and a loss are better than two draws.
a. Osasuna. Was the victory at the Juegos Mediterráneos a mirage? According to Villarreal’s next away match, there was still room for improvement. A comprehensive 0-3 win at El Sadar in Pamplona in jornada 3 put the Yellow Submarine on top of the table overnight and left fans dreaming for more.
b. Celta and Betis. Even in the 0-0 draw in Vigo and 1-0 defeat in Seville in jornadas 5 and 7, Villarreal put its best foot forward. Some questionable officiating and poor finishing in the final third (sounds like a broken record) were the primary culprits for the Yellow Submarine only taking one point from six. But the performances on the whole were solid.
c.Levante. To round off a clean sweep of local rivals, the granotas were effectively killed off in ten minutes in jornada 14. Uche earned a penalty which saw Levante keeper Keylor Navas sent off, and Bruno Soriano converted the spot-kick. Levante’s main attacking threats Xumetra and Baba went off due to injury, and two late Uche tallies sealed the deal.
Which reason has the most to do with Villarreal’s success to date in 2013-14? Share your thoughts – or an alternative – in the comments.