Looking back at the start of the season, how many of us could have realistically predicted that Villarreal would be in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Fresh off the back of success in the Europa League, the first major trophy in the club’s history, the Spaniards were gearing up for a European campaign with little expectation.
Their domestic form has been lukewarm and judging from their squad — a mixture of outcasts and prospects scattered around the world to meet in Castellón — there’s no reason to suggest why this side could be capable of doing anything special.
Flash forward nine months and Unai Emery has turned the Yellow Submarine into a relentless winning warcraft after they beat Bayern Munich over two legs to ensure a 2-1 aggregate win. Taking anything away from the Allianz Arena is no easy feat but with this side’s grit and determination, entwined with the romance of the Champions League and the endearing support of the Villarreal fans, Emery and co. dogged in to defy the Champions League odds and book their place in the next round.
“It’s an extraordinary feeling, it was not easy for us,” Emery said, praising his side. “We are moving forward step by step, we had a quarter-final, very difficult, but our goal before this game was not to give a good image of us, it was to qualify.
“To achieve something, you have to do important things and beat the favourites. That game against Juventus gave us a lot of confidence.”
Villarreal are now just two matches away from the final, and you can only imagine how much it would mean to the Spanish coach after his tenure in the French capital was cut short with Paris Saint-Germain. Their capitulation against Barcelona is still remembered but a success in Europe’s biggest club competition with serious underdogs would certainly recover his reputation as one of the most tactically astute managers in the league.
For all his work though, the players on the pitch also deserve some credit for executing the gameplan perfectly. Dani Parejo was industrious in the middle of the park, and never shirked a tackle despite the physicality of Bayern’s midfielders. The centre back partnership of Pau Torres and Raúl Albiol — a blend of European experience and modern-day composure — kept Robert Lewandowski at bay for as long as they could, and although the Pole did find the back of the net in the 51st minute, Samuel Chukwueze was on hand to send the pocket of away fans in Munich into delirium as he put his side ahead three minutes from time.
For all Bayern’s shortcomings, and there were plenty, Julian Nagelsmann was simply outcoached by Emery, who once again demonstrated his proficiency in Europe. His stint at Arsenal perhaps overshadowed his capabilities in tournament football, but his biggest test will come in the next round, as the Yellow Submarine look to book their place in Paris.
It will almost be five years to the day that Villarreal met Liverpool in the Europa League semi-finals. They were outclassed then and surrendered a 1-0 away lead, but with how far the club has come since then, and with some of the squad from that trip to Anfield still present, you feel like the stars may be aligning and looking in the La Liga side’s favour.