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Best Team to Never Win: Villarreal 2010-11 and their Europa League adventure

Equipe Villarreal Photo : Vitor Ribeiro / Icon Sport via Getty Images

I’m not really in a position to write about our teams in the early 2000’s—I didn’t get to see them play enough in real time. I want to focus on the 2010-11 Villarreal team, which was really special to me not just because it was so good, but because it was the first year I was writing for Villarreal USA, I could watch almost all of their matches, so I really felt a connection with them.

Let me say first of all we were never going to win La Liga. In 2010-11 it was a very uneven playing field and the top two were very definitely the top two (Barcelona would win the league with 96 points, Madrid would have 92, Valencia would finish third on 71).

The summer had all sorts of interesting intrigue to it. Villarreal had finished seventh in the league, just outside the European places, and before the final match of that season (a 3-3 draw at Zaragoza) there was some sort of infamous party, the details of which have never really come out. But Diego Godin was shipped to Atleti as a result of it, Gonzalo Rodriguez was apparently set to be sold too, but agreed to do all sorts of things to redeem himself with the club.

And then, there was the whole Mallorca situation. They missed out on the Champions League via a last-second goal from Sevilla, so finished fifth; then, UEFA threw them out of the Europa League because they had failed to pay for players and had to file for bankruptcy. So Villarreal, which according to some was agitating behind the scenes for this decision, took their place in Europe. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of Mallorca’s loanees, Borja Valero, promptly agreed to join us.

Anyway, when the season started we thought we might be pretty good. A midfield of Cani, Santi Cazorla, Borja Valero and Marcos Senna; Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar up front, Musacchio and Gonzalo at CB, Juan Capdevila and Angel Lopez on the wings, Diego Lopez in goal. And coach Garrido, who had guided the Submarine in the last half of the previous season.

The first match was a disappointing 1-0 loss to Real Sociedad, but then we went on a tear, winning five straight, and were in the top four of league pretty much the whole season. But the trophy we should have won was the Europa League.

We futzed around, as one does, in the group stage, but finished top of our group and were drawn against Napoli in the round of 32. After a 0-0 draw in Naples, we triumphed 2-1 with two goals just before halftime, one from Nilmar, one from Rossi, and held on to progress.

Now, the round of 16, and Bayer Leverkusen. A lot of Bundesliga fans were talking on twitter about how they’d steamroll us, but it didn’t happen; we won 3-2 away (Rossi and two Nilmar goals, the last in added time) and won the home leg 2-1, Santi Cazorla and Rossi scoring and it being a fairly comfortable victory in the end.

Quarterfinals: there were three Portuguese teams, two Dutch sides, one Ukrainian, one Russian, and us, and we drew Twente. Villarreal were outstanding, powering to a 5-1 win, but Marc Janko broke Gonzalo Rodriguez’s leg with a cynical challenge late on, and that took a lot of the luster off the evening. We won 3-1 in the Netherlands and then….Porto in the semifinals.

By now my wife and I, like I’m sure numerous Villarreal fans around the globe, had made plans to travel to Ireland for the final if we got there. I’ll never forget watching the first leg—upstairs in our then-Massachusetts house, with our beloved cat Pewter for company. Everything looked great for a half—we outplayed the home side in the first half and could have had a couple of goals already before Cani gave us the lead just before the break. But then, disaster. First Falcao won and converted a penalty less than five minutes into the half, then Guarin scored a header on the hour mark and coach Garrido had a decision to make.

Down 2-1, if we could hold that scoreline, we had to feel good about winning by a couple of goals at home….at any rate, he pulled three attacking players over the next 10 minutes (Borja, Cani and Nilmar), hoping to stem the tide, but Villarreal were by now both physically exhausted and mentally shattered, as I wrote at the time. Three more Porto goals followed and Villarreal were essentially done. We won the return leg 3-2 at El Madrigal, but frankly, we should have scored 2 or 3 goals in Portugal too; that game was ours for the taking, and we fell apart when it most counted.

We finished a comfortable fourth in the league, but we should have been celebrating a Europa League win—this team was that good.