Yellow Submarine Dreamland as Villarreal Seize Their Moment
“Look at the stars, look how they shine for you, and everything you do, they were all yellow”.
These are lyrics from Coldplay’s hit single over two decades ago, but they perfectly apply to the scenes in Gdańsk on Wednesday night and to the euphoric celebrations along Carrer Blasco Ibáñez in Vila-real the following day.
A wave of support, an ocean of groguets, engulfing the Yellow Submarine as the players celebrated their historic achievement with their fans, with their people. A dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Manchester United gave Villarreal their first ever major trophy and they became the smallest European champions by population. Unai Emery did it again as he claimed his fourth title in the competition, more than any other coach, and Villarreal did not lose a single game. They were never even behind on aggregate throughout the knockout stages.
The entire population of Villarreal could comfortably fit inside Old Trafford. David had beaten Goliath, the Super League-aspiring global behemoth. The cliché is a frequent one for apparently imbalanced finals, but it has plenty of resonance. Ole Gunnar Solskjær was keen to talk up the numerical omens that meant United were seemingly destined to win on May 26th, as Daniel Storey discussed. Precisely 22 years ago, the United coach was scoring the dramatic winner to seal the treble as Bayern Munich were stunned at Camp Nou. That same season, 1998/99, Villarreal were relegated after embarking on their first ever top-flight campaign. It is a stark contrast.
Unai Emery once again proved what a masterful tactician he is, especially in this competition, one in which he now reigns supreme. He outclassed his Norwegian counterpart, unafraid of making substitutions to freshen things up and allow Villarreal to hold on in the second half. Solskjær seemed to completely freeze, not making any changes until the 100th minute, despite having players that cost millions on the bench. He didn’t appear to have any confidence in his back-ups, and this doubt seemed to grow as the players struggled through extra time. Villarreal were resurgent with the changes, and looked the more likely side to snatch a winner. Emery had a gameplan, and it was adaptable to the situation and to the flow of the game. Put simply, it worked. Post-game, he showed all his class and humility in acknowledging the work that he and his staff put in to prepare, and that he respects this competition when others perhaps feel it is beneath them. After a difficult spell in England, where he was mocked and treated unfairly, beating Arsenal and then Manchester United must have tasted very sweet.
Villarreal fans will remember this night for as long as they live, but for neutrals the nature of the penalty shootout makes it one of greatest crescendos in recent years. The club were well aware of their opportunity. Es nuestro momento (it’s our time) was a slogan unveiled before the semi-final, with history very much on their minds. They suffered at the Emirates but secured the goalless draw required. Those Arsenal ghosts had already been laid to rest. 15 years after their mercurial Argentine Juan Román Riquelme missed that penalty in the Champions League semi-final, this time it was their Argentine goalkeeper who was decisive. Many said Emery should have reverted to first choice keeper Sergio Asenjo for the final showpiece, worried that Gerónimo Rulli would cost them, but in an almost poetic turn of events, he was the matchwinner. He was the eleventh player to take a penalty, and kept up the remarkable 100 percent record, before diving to his left to keep out David De Gea’s reply. The spine-tingling reaction from commentator Rubén Martín speaks volumes about what this means to the club and to its people. Football owed them.
Villarreal’s goal in normal time came from a familiar source. Gerard Moreno scored his 30th goal of the season in all competitions. He was the top-scoring Spaniard in LaLiga, the joint-top scorer in this season’s Europa League, and he equalled Giuseppe Rossi’s record as the club’s all-time record goalscorer. But he isn’t just a goalscorer, he creates and he defends from the front. He made 11 recoveries against United, a record for a forward in the Europa League going back to 2009/10.
Another beautiful narrative from the final was Dani Parejo. An arc from tears to tears. At the start of this season, Parejo broke down when discussing his departure from Valencia. At the end of it, he was crying again, albeit tears of a very different kind. Valencia, the club he loved, where he was captain, where he had spent the best part of a decade, wanted him out. He didn't want to leave, but the relationship with the owner was irreparably damaged, and he was shown the door. Villarreal couldn't believe their luck, securing his services for free. After the departure of Santi Cazorla, replacing him with a player of Parejo's calibre at zero cost was a no-brainer. It was hard not to get emotional seeing him celebrating this achievement. One of the most technically gifted players in Spain, it seems criminal that he only has four Spain caps to his name.
The centre-backs were also a cornerstone of this triumph. Pau Torres and Raúl Albiol are at opposite ends of their careers, but they complement each other superbly.Albiol first won the competition in 2004. He was a bit-part player in Rafa Benítez's UEFA Cup-winning Valencia side. Pau Torres was only seven years old at the time. 17 years on, they have formed one of the best central defensive partnerships in Spain, with discipline, strength and composure coming together perfectly. For Pau, this was so magical. A boy from the village, he grew up as a fan, came through the cantera, and is now a central figure in this historical side. He cried as the parade passed the balcony of his grandparents, lifting the trophy high above his head. The next day, he surprised the youth team by turning up at the LaLiga Promises tournament with the trophy. Those children will be inspired to become the next Pau Torres. With the Euros ahead, and speculation about his future, he has a significant summer ahead, but no-one can doubt his love for the club.
Juan Foyth was another shrewd signing by the club. On loan from Tottenham, he showed his best level in the semi-final but a hamstring injury threatened to curtail his season. He recovered in time for the final and put in a warrior-like shift. The bandage and bloody nose resembled the iconic Terry Butcher image from 1989. He has become a cult hero for fans, who will now be desperate to secure his services on a permanent basis.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that there is serious financial clout driving the project. Their president is billionaire Fernando Roig who made his fortune in ceramics. His family is one of the wealthiest in Spain, with a sizeable stake in supermarket chain Mercadona. However, it is a fantastically well-run club, sustainable and organic, with values and identity spread throughout. From the cantera to the recruitment policy, Villarreal go about things is the right way. 16 players in the squad came through the academy, a proud achievement for a club of this size. Roig himself is well-liked too, in contrast to many of the wealthy elite who run football, and he was vocal and vehemently against the Super League. Villarreal celebrated when he tested negative for Covid-19 in the days leading up to the game, but UEFA’s strict bubble protocols prohibited him from travelling with the squad. A bittersweet moment for him, but perhaps became all the more special when he experienced the final as a fan back in the town, waiting for the parade to see the trophy arrive in their humble town.
Villarreal’s triumph is special for so many reasons. Historical and current, tales of emergence and redemption, the humble town against the global superclub. The scenes of joy on the faces of the players and the fans emphasised this resoundingly. Villarreal deserved the opportunity, they earned it the right way, and they won. It truly is their moment.
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