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  • Writer's pictureEuan McTear

Villarreal’s Realistic Fantasy: European Battles With Arsenal

“We were 11 metres away from a Champions League final.” It’s a phrase you’ll hear time and time again in the tiny city of Vila-real, home of a club that dared to dream. But, it’s not actually true.

The fairy tale goes that Villarreal had a penalty in the 89th minute of the second leg of the 2005/06 Champions League semi-final tie against Arsenal. Juan Román Riquelme, one of the merry mavericks who had led them there, stepped up to face Jens Lehmann to put Villarreal into the final in Paris. The Argentine missed. Or Lehmann saved, whichever way you want to look at it. That’s the story they teach in nurseries across Vila-real. But, it’s not actually true.

The truth is that they weren’t 11 metres away from the final. They were 11 metres away from extra time. Arsenal were leading 1-0 at the moment of Riquelme’s penalty thanks to Kolo Touré’s first leg goal, so a Villarreal win by the same scoreline would have forced 30 minutes of extra time. Then, who knows what would have happened?

Well, in Vila-real they know. They’re adamant. “It’s true, we would have made the final had that penalty gone in,” says barman Marc, who has lived there all his life. “I was in the stadium that day and the way the crowd was… We were winning extra time. For sure.”

He’s not the only one who thinks so. Robert Pires, who switched from Arsenal to Villarreal after the end of that season agrees. “If Riquelme had scored then we would have been dead in extra time,” the Frenchman has since admitted. “That was such a tough night for Arsenal.”

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Spool forward to 2020/21 and there’s another Villarreal vs Arsenal semi-final. A lot of things have changed. It’s the Europa League this time and not the Champions League. The coaches and players are all different. It’s now called the Estadio de la Cerámica instead of El Madrigal. And there has been a global pandemic to mean there are now no real fans in the stands, only cardboard cutouts – which look fantastically better than the scenes in most other empty stadiums, it has to be said.

Some things are the same, though. Again, the fans have this indestructible belief in a dream that most outsiders would say is too big for such a tiny club. To win a European title is Villarreal’s realistic fantasy, even though they’ve never won any major trophy during the club’s entire existence. Even when they came up from the Segunda division in 1998, 2000 and 2013, they did so after finishing fourth, third and second respectively.

In this season’s European semi-finals, the cities represented are London, Madrid, Rome, Paris, Manchester and Vila-real. Populations which are 178, 64, 58, 43 and 11 times larger than that of Vila-real. But, in Vila-real, there is one common response to that. So?

“They think we’re too small to win a European title, but why not?” is a common sentiment outside the stadium in the hours before the Yellow Submarine’s semi-final first leg against Arsenal, where hundreds gather to form a crowd of yellow to greet the team bus, which is followed by an endless motorcade of yellow-clad motorbikes, burning fuel in a way that makes you wonder how much business the local petrol station just did. It’s not just the football shirts and flags that are yellow, but also shorts, hats, dresses, scarves and coronavirus masks. The fans truly embrace the colours of their team. For a Villarreal fan, yellow his house with a yellow little window and a yellow corvette and everything is yellow for him, and himself and everybody around. The sceptics, he’s not going to listen to.

They genuinely believe they can win a European trophy. Some even expect it. To fight for the 2020/21 Europa League title was a pre-season objective and the reason they replaced Javi Calleja, one of their own, with three-time winner of this competition Unai Emery. Even in his introductory press conference in July of 2020, the Basque coach spoke about this, saying: “Dreams are free and I dream of winning a title with Villarreal.”

To win a title, Villarreal must first reach a final. They’ve made four UEFA semi-finals before but have fallen at this stage each time. Valencia in the 2003/04 UEFA Cup, Arsenal in the 2005/06 Champions League, Porto in the 2010/11 Europa League and then Liverpool in the 2015/16 Europa League have all stood in the way.

Now, it’s Arsenal again and, in the first leg on Thursday night, the Gunners are defeated 2-1. It could and probably should have been so much better for Emery’s side as they led 2-0 and had a man advantage at one point in the second half, thanks to first half goals from Manu Trigueros and Raúl Albiol and then a Dani Ceballos red card. Yet they lost the man advantage with a red card of their own and also conceded a potentially vital away goal to the Gunners, with Nicolas Pépé scoring a softly awarded penalty. Of course, there wasn’t going to be a penalty narrative in this rematch.

The second leg in London will be a huge challenge for Villarreal as they finally look to make it past the final four of European competition, breaking another glass ceiling after smashing through so many more before this one. President Fernando Roig, with his admirable project, has led Villarreal through each barrier one by one to this point, with an approach to smashing glass ceilings that is much calmer than that of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka. Just 23 years ago, the team had never been in Spain’s first tier. Now, they’re a regular and a European dreamer, but the process has been steady and logical, investing in the academy and attracting talents through astute recruitment and the lure of top-class facilities.

As they go to London next week, the hope is there. For many, it’s even an expectation. They were 11 metres away from a final once before. Now, it’s 90 minutes and the belief in this realistic fantasy is as strong as ever.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or want to find angry Arsenal fans saying Trigueros definitely fouled Saka, you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown.

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