How Villarreal Upset the Odds in their Champions League Run?
There is a sense that Villarreal has not been given the credit they deserve for their impressive run to the semi-finals of the Champions League. Usually, there is a lot of hype around an unfamiliar face making to the last four of Europe’s premier cup competition, like Ajax in the 2018-19 tournament, but Villarreal’s run didn’t seem to attract that buzz.
Perhaps it is because the ‘Yellow Submarine’ doesn’t have the same reputation around the continent as the Amsterdam-based side or the fact they didn’t play the same attractive football for the most part of their journey — unlike Manchester United-bound Erik ten Hag’s de Godenzonen.
Regardless, Unai Emery’s plucky outfit of Premier League misfits still deserves credit for their performances in the Champions League this season. For a side more accustomed to the Europa League, to reach the last four of the semi-finals of the Champions League would have been beyond the goals they set themselves at the beginning of the season.
So, just how did Villarreal’s manager upset the football betting odds by going all the way to the last four of the Champions League? It appears to all boil down to their defensive doggedness and the ability to take their chances against superior opposition in the knockout stages.
While they ultimately crumbled against Jürgen Klopp’s heavy metal Liverpool in the semi-finals — with a second-half collapse putting paid to any hope of a miracle comeback at la Cerámica after taking a 2-0 lead— Villarreal’s run was largely built on being a defensive unit and picking the right time to punish their opponent.
“We have to play the long game,” Tottenham Hotspur loanee Giovani Lo Celso claimed, and that’s exactly what they did — sitting back patiently and waiting for opportunities to hit on the break.
The 1-1 draw at home to Juventus in the round of 16 was the only knockout game in which Villarreal boasted greater possession than their opposition, which says a lot about the nature of their 3-0 win in Turin — where they scored with all three of their shots on target.
That became a common theme for Villarreal. They came out of the blocks at home against Bayern Munich, scoring within eight minutes. But then sat back and soaked up the pressure from the German champions, while not having another attempt on target.
At the Allianz, they set up defensively from the start — with the prolific Robert Lewandowski eventually breaking down the Yellow Submarine. But they countered fantastically in the last couple of minutes, and Samuel Chukwueze scored with their only shot on target again.
That is a reoccurring theme that carried on against Liverpool in the last four. After suffering a 2-0 defeat at Anfield, failing to force Alisson into making a single save in the entire 90 minutes, Emery’s men netted both of their only attempts on goal to briefly level the scores on aggregate.
There’s no doubt that the lack of star players and big egos in the dressing room also plays its part at la Cerámica. As mentioned earlier, Emery has built a side made up mostly of players who largely failed to impress in the Premier League, more specifically in north London, but they gel together to make a decent side.
The lack of pressure and expectations must also help the players. It’s easy to say that the likes of Juan Foyth, Lo Celso, Serge Aurier, Francis Coquelin, and Alberto Moreno didn’t really impress in the Premier League. However, playing for Arsenal, Spurs, and Liverpool brings a lot more pressure.
With a population of just 50,000, Villarreal is the smallest town to ever win the Europa League, but their fans are certainly not demanding. Following the defeat to Liverpool, there wasn’t a moan or groan amongst the home support inside la Cerámica. Instead, chants of ‘gracias’ broke out inside the mere 23,500 stadia.
It’s certainly been a feel-good story from the 2021-22 football season. So, here’s hoping Villarreal, and teams like them can continue to be a thorn in the side of Europe’s elite — especially at a time when they tried to ruin the so-called ‘smaller sides’ with the European Super League.