A week later: Reflections on the match that changed it all.

Villarreal (11) 1-1 (10) Manchester United.

Very few times a single match has meant so much to a club. One can go back to specific moments in this sport and pinpoint similar ones–Real Madrid’s Mijatovic goal and narrow victory against Juventus to claim their 7th (then called) European Cup; City’s Aguero moment and first Premier League in decades; Deportivo A Coruña’s Centenariazo, at the Santiago Bernabeu no less, to win the Copa del Rey (Spanish Cup) against, you guessed it, Real Madrid.

For Villarreal this match at the end of May means so many things. A week after the historic win at Gdansk, Poland, we look over some of those. What is clear is that the goal-and-save combo by Geronimo Rulli changes the history, context, and future timeline of this entity.

The main thing to take away here is that Villarreal is, as of May 26th, a club with a continental trophy. The team based in the province of Castellon had not won a proper title ever, its history dating back to 1923 (although the official birth of the entity that is now called Villarreal FC came in the 1940s, but the sentimental start year was 98 years ago).

98 years later, they put that heavy, impressive trophy on the shelves of the stadium. Some regional titles and two Intertoto Cups were the full baggage of this club before the Europa League came into everyone’s lives.

Because of this trophy, Villarreal is, now more than ever, a fashionable team. The Yellow Submarine was always a team people used to like, but a team that is now cool to follow because it wins, too. The fans who don’t necessarily come from Vila-real, nor the ones who just happened to fall in love with the club after the first promotion in 1998, or the penalty missed in 2006, or the Cazorla, Senna, and Rossi days, can now become part of the feeling of supporting this team because it is simply fun to follow teams that win titles. It’s the reason so many fans support Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, and others–it’s fun to celebrate.

Villarreal is now on that list. In Spain, a country focused most of the time on Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico, being up there is complicated. Villarreal is only one of seven clubs in Spain to have won a European title. That says a lot of the team Emery has made perform. Neither the amazing squad Deportivo enjoyed in the early 00s, nor Guerrero and Etxeberria’s Athletic, nor Villarreal itself from when the Yellow Submarine took a spot in the top two, a little over a decade ago, achieved what Emery’s men have.

With this trophy that folks in Vila-real and all over the region and country will travel, near and far, to take a picture with, a second, very important outcome is met: Villarreal gets to enter the Champions League in the approaching season.

Now, this is now a milestone that will necessarily last as a legacy in the honors of the club like the Europa League trophy, but it is an immensely impactful one.

Being in the Champions League means, among others, three things:

  • More money for the club as part of the elite of the continent.
  • More appeal for new players to join the team, as playing in the Champions League is, for many, only surpassed by playing in the World Cup.
  • More appeal for current players to stay and enjoy an exciting, top-tier, ambitious season.

This last point is crucial. Let’s take into account two possible scenarios:

Scenario A: Rulli misses the penalty, De Gea scores. Villarreal do not win the title, do not qualify for the Champions League, do not have the need to strengthen the squad as much, and they have to play UEFA’s Europa Conference League.

Scenario B: Villarreal wins and trophy, Champions League, money and appeal, to sign more better players and retain great ones, follow.

In which scenario do you think Pau Torres sticks around, at least one more season, to see the year through? What about 29-year-old Gerard Moreno? Or Pedraza, who is getting some attention from England and Italy?

This trophy means everyone, including the top stars at Villarreal, want to stick around. This will be a marquee year, with plenty of money to improve the team (without going crazy, Roig always reminds us), pay more to those staying, and a team in a town of 50,000 in the spotlight as the shiny winner of the Europa League.

And yes, with “Mr. Europa League” Unai Emery in charge, a man who is ready to make his mark in the Champions League. Unless a truly irresistible offer comes through, nobody will want to miss this.

There are other factors coming Villarreal’s way because of this win: The club will collect roughly 30 million Euros between the Europa League and the Supercup matches, regardless of the outcome of the match against Chelsea. They’ll be able to play, with zero pressure, against Chelsea in August, and potentially lift two trophies in three months, after 98 years of no titles.

Villarreal will also be in the first group of Champions League teams, along with the league winners, in the drawing over the summer for the group stage. Do you know who isn’t in the first group? Real Madrid and Barcelona. Group #2.

Crazy days.

The top takeaways though are that Villarreal and Roig finally have their title, that the Champions League is back, and that nobody will want to miss this.

Get excited.

The celebration in Vila-real, days later, was something unseen. Fans from across the town, but from far out as well came to join into the festivities. Tens of thousands of yellow shirts climbed light posts, trees, and buildings just to wave at the team bus. Kids by the thousands cheered as their passion for the team that won a title grows, and remains in their hearts, forever.

The club store ran out of shirts, scarves and flags; the chapel of Sant Pasqual ran out of candles and the traditional bracelets. The smallest town ever to win a European trophy enjoyed for days.

Parejo got drunk for the second time in his life. Capoue took his shirt off the entire time. It got wild.

In the evening, the bus, which slowly had been making its way to the stadium in a sea of yellow, was welcomed by a small cohort in the actual pitch at La Ceramica, and a group of little more than 300 guests celebrated the trophy, said thank yous, took pictures, and had dinner together with some music from a band from local town Almazora, Los Makis.

And that, right there, is the essence of Villarreal. The “first title”, as Fernando Roig puts it, is to “Remain in La Liga”. After that, the goal is to do as well as possible; to improve the team every year, and sometimes, like last week, to try to make history. Sometimes it looks like a semifinal, a penalty missed; some others, like a second place in La Liga, taking Barcelona’s spot. Last week, it meant lifting a title against a team with over three times the budget, and 66 trophies.

However, Villarreal always remains humble, counts its blessings, and thanks those who made it possible.

That is who Villarreal is. And that is who all of us, natives of Vila-real like me, or fans of Villarreal in Argentina, Japan, wherever; and players, staff and ownership should always strive to be.

We’ve made history.

We enjoy the spoils.

We’ll get back to work.

Villarreal (11) 1-1 (10) Manchester United: Champions of Europe!

A beautiful, familiar setting

Against all odds, and in its first final ever, Villarreal Club de Futbol took advantage of a lethargic, dull and powerless Manchester United to claim the title of European Champions. 

The enchanting Polish city of Gdansk welcomed thousands of fans who took the city by storm and within an atmosphere of “germanor” (Valenciano for brotherhood), cheered through the day, walked to the Polsat Plus Arena Gdańsk, and for the first time in over a year, were able to soak in the beautiful sport in all its glory. 

The fans provided, for the first time in a while, a much anticipated frame for what would be an intense, stressful, heart attack-inducing match. Villarreal came out to perform the pre-match warmup, and Villarreal supporters immediately synced in to sign the club’s anthem to an energized, motivated team. Gerard Moreno’s during the warmup was ominous–he was ready to go. 

It was the Spanish fans, who at times seemed five, six times in number, who took the match in their own hands in portions of last night’s battle. The residents of Vila-real knew this was going to be their only important final in a long time, and made a conscious effort todo their part to  keep the team in the game. 

An ideal first half

Villarreal spent the first ten minutes going through understandable first-final jitters. Seemingly easy passes were not reaching their destination; the players were both too revved-up and playing in slow motion, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men seemed to be feeding of the yellow team’s nervousness and instead keeping the ball, smiling through play attempts, and overall showing the rivals they had been there before. Many times before. 

However, the Red Devils did not take advantage of that initial window to take charge, and Villarreal started to come out of its shell. 15 minutes had come up, and Villarreal were still in it. They could take chances. They could look their rivals in the eye. 

And so, they did. Manu Trigueros ran far post after a corner kick taken by Parejo, and the volley ended up in the second ring of the stands; but the seed was planted. Manchester United were human after all. To the team from a city of 50,000 people, that was a big sign. 

The English team did have his chances as well, as Shaw, McTominay and others tried their luck from afar. The ability to run into space and utilize the wings has been a big part of the success of Ole’s team, but against a compact, tucked in Villarreal, chances to score were slim, and limited to shots from outside the box. 

At times, Villarreal seemed almost too tucked in. That was obvious in the few counters Emery’s team enjoyed in the first half, where Bacca, willing but disconnected at times, and Yeremy Pino, active and lively, were often the only players charging a defense of five or six at a time. 

However, Villarreal was enjoying a few set pieces here and there, and half an hour into the first half, one of them produced. Gerard Moreno, seemingly staying back in a free kick taken by Parejo, quickly ran through the defense, losing his mark, and managing to connect with the perfect curve of Parejo’s cross. Villarreal celebrated, Vila-real did the same back home, and the world was in shock. 

It was a reflection of the kind of season Moreno, and by extension Villarreal, have had. Working for one another, staying tucked in, and capitalizing on their opportunities. There is a reason Moreno only needed about half the shots Messi took this season to score 23 goals in La Liga–he’s efficient as he is creative. In that goal, he showed both. 

It also seemed to be a rehearsed play. Raul Albiol, slightly in front of Gerard, looked back just as the cross came in, and shielded ex-Villarreal defender Eric Bailly as the Spanish striker charged towards De Gea. The rest is history. 

The players celebrated; they formed a pile and hugged each other. But even then, they looked around, waited for an offside call to snap them out of it, or some other external influence that would tell them “No, you are not up in your first final ever.” It never came, and the goal stood. 

Everyone who watches this sport would have told you that the next 15 minutes were absolutely crucial for Villarreal. United tried, but its efforts were nothing special, and neither the creativity of Bruno Fernandes, taken away by Capoue’s performance, nor the attacking threat of Cavani, dried out by Pau and Albiol, left Ole with no choice other than shouting at his players at times, and heading to the locker for what surely would be an energetic, borderline angry halftime speech. United needed to show something. 

A reaction 

United’s response to claim the stage in this final did not take long. After a soft yellow given to Capoue by Clement Turpin, Villarreal’s defensive presence in the midfield took a hit, and United found a few minutes to have an extra slice of a second to think. A couple of minutes later, a corner by the English deflected off a few players after a shot from Rashford from outside the box. Cavani scored his easiest goal ever in a final, and just like that, things were back to zero. 

For fans of the smaller team, the story was being written before them. Cue Manchester United comeback. The triumph of the bigger, better, Superleague-worthy team. A larger-than-life, Nike-commercial-worthy second half. 

It didn’t happen. Villarreal spent its worst times in that second half, but knew how to dig itself out of the hole and defend the result. Players were helping each other; others seemed to find energy from who knows where after a season of 50+ matches. Emery’s expertise in European finals was clear through his clinical approach to substitutions, giving the team oxygen when it most needed it. 

Cavani and Greenwood had clear chances, but the last shot just wasn’t there. Villarreal kept slow-breathing and keeping its composure through the second half. Juan Foyth bled and pushed through an amazing performance, all but ensuring that Villarreal will spend the money to keep him here. Things were coming down to the wire. Pau had a 92nd minute chance to have a statue in the Plaza Mayor, but the chance went up into the clouds.

It was extra-time.

Emery saw another opportunity to prop his team up, and told them to push up. Villarreal surprised United and the English team found itself having a hard time leaving his portion of the pitch. Tthe Spanish enjoyed several chances to put De Gea on the spot, but nervousness showed its face again, and the yellow team could not capitalize on some decent chances.

The 30 minutes flew past both teams, and with an array of substitutions happening in the last few minutes to give way to penalty experts, the cards were dealt. The most cruel way to end a final was next. 

Death by penalties

In a normal penalty shootout of any normal final, the best of five wins. In a normal penalty shootout, someone misses within those five chances, and things tend to end within a couple of minutes. 

This was not a normal shootout. 

Teams pushed their top penalty takers forward, and as top takers, they all scored. Five out of five, on each side. Things were tied; no goalkeeper had made a save; no player had a shot out of goal. Out of the ordinary, but possible. 

Sixth round. Moi Gomez scored. Fred reciprocated. 

Seventh round. Raul Albiol, who after the match admitted to not having “Taken a penalty since he was in the youth team” stared down De Gea and passed it to the opposite end of the goalkeeper. Young Dan James didn’t flinch and responded with the 7-7. 

Eighth round. Francis Coquelin, a defensive midfielder, placed it in the top left corner of De Gea. Luke Shaw chose the same side with a low shot, and Rulli guessed it right, but the ball inexplicably went through the Argentinian’s hand. The kind of almost-got-it moment you remember forever., especially if you lose.

Ninth round. Mario Gaspar, in the club all his career and one of the captains, blasted it through the middle, and De Gea got a hand on it, but could not deflect it. The right back celebrated it with the passion of someone who knew he could have just as well missed. Axel Tuanzebe showed serenity reserved only for special young players, and made the goalkeeper guess wrong to make it 9-9.

Tenth round. Pau Torres approached the ball, and as the Vila-real kid prepared to shoot, thousands in his hometown worried a mistake would mark him forever. 

Nope. His village helped him shoot an unstoppable penalty. The score read 10-9. 

Victor Lindelof kept composed and blasted high another good penalty, to tie again.

20 penalties taken. 20 goals. 

It was time for the goalkeepers. 

At this point, nobody knew where this would go. More than ever, it was down to whatever the sport’s Gods wanted it to be. Geronimo Rulli, after that almost-unnoticed but absolutely crucial save against Arsenal, pulled another stroke of genius and placed a penalty in the top corner of De Gea. The crowd looked in disbelief as players with theoretically poor penalty skills were turning into Lionel. 

Something was certainly brewing. 

It was time for De Gea. The only Spaniard to start against the Spanish team in last night’s final had written down the list of opposing players, and where they tend to shoot penalties, in a piece of paper taped to his towel. 

He never thought he would have to score one himself.  

His demeanor said it all: he looked at the crowd right before taking the shot, staring briefly into the Villarreal fans, directly behind Rulli’s goal. He raised his eyebrows, and focused on the ball. He slow-ran towards the ball and placed his foot in an attempt at a well placed shot to the left of Rulli. Even though the direction was good, the height wasn’t, and once Rulli guessed the side right, it was all over. 

Villarreal celebrated. Rulli got on his knees, and got run over by his own teammates as they piled on top of him. The fans in Gdansk went crazy. The ones in Vila-real did the same. And just like that, the suffering, the pain, and the 98 years of waiting for something to lift were over. Villarreal, 23 years after being promoted to La Liga for the first time, lift their first trophy. And they do so deservedly, with the passion of an entire town-and beyond-behind them, and against one of history’s best clubs.

And it was all Yellow!

Villarreal, and Vila-real, have their first trophy. The world celebrates with us.

If you are a fan of any sport, there are moments in your life where a song, a word, or a phrase will make you stop on your tracks.
A lump will form in your throat; a wave of heat will rise up from your stomach and into your chest.  For a moment, your mind will go somewhere else. And not just anywhere–it will go to a very specific place.

If you are from Spain, that will happen, without fail, every time someone plays Shakira’s “Waka Waka.” Extra time goal. Daniel Jarque dedication.

If you are a City fan, it will undeniably be the word “Aguero,” followed by five or six more o’s at the end. Last minute shot. Shirt waving in the air. 

If I write “Can you believe this? Go, Go, USA!” A portion of you will probably see a certain #10 sliding into the corner flag. Pile of players to follow. Vuvuzelas galore. 

Starting today, a single word will do just that to all Villarreal fans. 

“Gdansk.”

That hard to pronounce, brow-furrowing, beautifully coiled, twisted word is ours now. We own it. We also get to have it. Plenty of teams in this sport never get one. 

Others wait a long, long time to get theirs. 

Last night, we got ours. 

Villarreal is a champion of Europe, and there is nothing else that needs to be said. The ramifications of this title will be felt for decades to come in this club, in this town, and in the East of Spain, where the star of Vila-real, shines bright and expands today more than ever.

There are plenty of things I could say about the match itself. Things you could read in any other of the match reports you can read today. I could talk about our players, and how nervous they were in the beginning. I could discuss at length on Capoue’s tremendous match, Parejo’s guidance when the team needed leadership, on Albiol and Pau’s confirmation as the two best centerbacks in the history of the club. 

I could praise Gerard Moreno’s performance as the best striker in the history of this club. 

It is usually difficult to find match reports, in English, about last night’s match. Today, it will be extremely easy. Everyone is a Villarreal fan today, and everyone wants to join the spotlight. 

It’s all good. The truth is, I vaguely remember all that. 

The month of May did not prove to be productive for me. I have a full-time job, and I had not been able to concentrate on anything for the past two weeks. Yesterday was no different. Throughout the entire day, my nerves had me dancing to Villarreal’s official Spotify playlist, with more songs that my parents danced to that I care to mention. 

I don’t think I had lunch. 

I smoked a cigarette (I don’t smoke). 

I watched the entire match from the floor of my living room, instead of using one of these inventions from the 1800s, the couch (I don’t remember why I didn’t).

And, I did not celebrate the first goal. It didn’t seem real. 

When a team that has never won a title is ahead, in its first final, it doesn’t make any sense. We, as a town, as a fanbase, as Europa League finalists, spent the better part of the month of May unable to understand what was happening, and useless to figure out how a finalist should behave. It was absolutely out of our comfort zone. 

For a team has never won a title, a final is, in a lot of ways, the worst place to be. As a fan of this kind of club, a final is truly the only thing standing between you and the first trophy ever–and that feels vulnerable. 

You are tossed into the ocean, a flag of your team around your neck, in the middle of a storm. There are two of you, and only one raft. Good luck.

Throughout the match, I kept seeing story arcs. When President Fernando Roig was told by UEFA he could not come into the stadium, as the COVID negative had happened too recently and there was a need to be cautious, I saw the arc: 

“Villarreal President has to fly back home after being denied entry by UEFA, and the team feels his absence in the final.”

The first ten minutes of the match, after seeing how nervous, error-prone and weak in the knees my team was against a team that had won it all, I saw another it again:

“Villarreal suffers first-final jitters and trips on its way to a first title”

120 minutes later, when everything had been played and it was the turn to risk it all on penalties, there it was again.

“Villarreal lose on penalties–again.”

I especially remember thinking of Pau Torres, as he approached to take the 10th penalty of the round. A player who had seen Roman miss the penalty in the stands in 2006, a player from Vila-real, would have to experience the pain Roman felt, multiplied by the 50,000 people in his and my village. That story practically wrote itself. 

But, to my shock, none of that happened. Villarreal, the President, Unai Emery, and the town of Vila-real were meant to lift that trophy last night. It was our time, it was our match, and even though at times it looked likely that Manchester United could pull from experience and take it home, they didn’t. 

A lot of that credit has to go to who is, officially and instantly, the best manager in the history of the club. For days, I had debated whether having an amazing team with an inexperienced manager was better, or worse, than having a good team with a really experienced manager. 

The latter is better. I am convinced now.

And because all of this, because of Emery, because of Fernando Roig and Jose Manuel Llaneza, because of an involved, engaged, passionate, hungry group of players, and because Geronimo Rulli apparently is a goalkeeper who knows how to send a penalty kick to the top corner, stare down De Gea, and save his shot, we are champions of Europe. 

When Rully stopped the penalty, I cried. I cried the happiest I have ever cried in my life. And I, like 50,000 in Vila-real and many others accross the world, will be in the clouds for years to come.

My uncle played in this club. Third Division, late 70s; mud, no TV revenue, and very few fans. 

In 1998, Villarreal went to the Northwest of Spain and fought against Compostela for a place in La Liga de las Estrellas. A half-cross-half-shot made it in, and the resulting 1-1 tie meant Fernando Roig got the club where he had promised he would. 

A lot has happened since. Craioveanu and the Camp Nou; Palermo and the wall; Roman and the penalty. Senna and Bruno crying through a relegation. The Mini-Estadi and 10,000 people watching the team back to where it belongs. 

And as of last night, Gdansk. That’s our word. 

Gdansk. Champions of Europe. Forever ours. 

It’s our time.

Today, just today, we own the spotlight of this beautiful sport.

I remember being at school and getting free tickets because they couldn’t fill it up.

I remember my uncle platying for this team–it was the 80s, the Third Divison. Mud and no fans.

I remember Roman and Forlan.

I remember Cazorla, Senna and Bruno, but also Craioveanu, Moises, and Salillas.

I remember getting relegated.

I remember so many semifinals, and so many tears. So close everytime.

And this. I will always remember this. Today, I will be crying either way. I hope it’s because it is one of the happiest days of my life.

Endavant, Villarreal. Always yours.

Fernando Roig, president of Villarreal: “We are not going to Gdansk to party. We are going to beat Manchester United.” 

(Today’s interview by local paper Mediterraneo, translated by me in its entirety with the blessing of the journalist who wrote it).

Villarreal News: President Fernando Roig spoke to local newspaper Mediterraneo from his home, where he is staying until he tests negative after contracting COVID earlier this month. We contacted the journalist to get the blessing on a curated translation for villarrealnews.com, and with that green light, we bring it over to you. Enjoy! 

_______________

Jose Luis Lizarraga: Villarreal has experienced an accelerated growth in the 24 years you have been in charge of the club, and the only thing it had left to achieve was the recognition of this final in Gdansk. Did you think this day would ever come?

Fernando Roig: It is an important milestone for the club, a reward to all these years of work, and to all the people fighting to earn something to celebrate. This edition of the Europa League included several clubs with a lot of history, and big budgets. There are only two in the final; one is Villarreal. They all have to be extremely proud. 

Yes, I thought it would come, but it’s true that it has taken a while. I hope more finals come.

JL: The chance of a final has squirmed away from Villarreal in five semifinals: in four different occasions in Europe, and one in the Spanish Cup. Has the ceiling glass been broken?

FR: I am not changing my position on this, because I know where we come from and I always want us to remain a humble club, that is our essence: the biggest title we celebrate each year is to remain in the First Division. 

After that, there are other goals, like qualifying for Europe; and now, this final. We have a good team that knows how to compete, and an experienced manager; but even with all that, it is very complicated to reach a final, and even more so in a tournament with big clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham, Roma, Napoli, Benfica, PSV, etc.

JL: Did you know that a lot of people are concerned about you not being able to go to the final?

FR: I would like to go to Gdansk, and I hope, in the end, that I can travel. There is still time for the negative test to come through. I feel very good healthwise, but I have to abide by the protocols to travel, and that includes a negative test.

JL: The photo of Fernando Roig lifting the Europa League trophy would be the best memory you could have, and a gift to Villarreal fans.

FR: We are not going to Gdansk to party, we are going to win. I know in the locker room there is a lot of excitement to bring the cup home; but this is also a day to enjoy. Whatever happens, we all have to be very proud of this team, of the club, the city, the Castellon province…in a nutshell, proud of Villarreal. 

Don’t count us as already having lost, though! I repeat: We are going to come out to win it, I hope nobody has any doubt about it. 

JL: You have always said that your most satisfying moment is knowing that this team, in a city of 51,000 people, has managed to be a club that is financially self-sufficient. Do you think yours is a management model worthy of study?

FR: Yes, I am very proud of the club being self-sufficient. We don’t depend on any super-sponsorship, or an owner who finances everything. It all works through television revenue, the right management, and work at the youth system level.

In summary, we are a club that is self-financed, one that is in good financial health, and one that has huge equity. 

JL: The sport is going through a delicate moment due to the pandemic, which has left big clubs in very delicate financial situations. Is it the moment that LaLiga clubs adapt their budgets accordingly under this new landscape?

FR: It is very similar to the economy. Taxes cannot last forever, and not everything can be paid with them; you have to adapt to expenses. In soccer, it is similar: you have to think that television revenue could be insufficient, and you have to adjust and balance out all expenses.

Television revenue is not infinite, you have to restructure and think deep on how much you spend, so you don’t go into debt

JL: Did Villarreal have to reduce its budget as well?

FR: When we got relegated from the First Division, the Managing Director had to do a lot of adjustments already. We sold players and we adapted to the economy of the club. Everything was done reasonably, and well. 

Now, we are among the seven clubs with the biggest budget in the First Division, but we have to realize that Villarreal cannot get up to 200 million Euros in budget. Furthermore, I think we should remain around 100-and-something. 

I don’t want to bother anyone, but everyone needs to adjust their expenses in alignment with their revenue. 

JL: Is competing against the big clubs in Europe a success attributed to the brains behind the operation inside the club?

FR: The success is the Managing Director’s. Fernando is the one who works, plans, and is involved in the day-to-day of the club. His work is worthy of mention, even more so because, as you say, he is in the shadows; but Villarreal is what it is because of his management.

JL: Success not only financially, but also when it comes to results, even though the team has ended the season in seventh position, a very good squad has been created, with a great leader on the bench.

FR: Yes, we had a streak of draws, and the goal Raba wasn’t given against Betis which would have changed the final table, but Villarreal has completed a great season, one that could be rounded up in Gdansk. 

The Managing Director also made a difficult decision with Calleja, who has proven he is a good manager at Alaves, and took a chance with a man with experience and a tireless worker, who lives and breathes for Villarreal, and that is Emery.

Because of that,a great piece of the success is Fernando’s. Making decisions and getting them right is not easy. 

JL: And you keep working, and planning. You never stop working. Are you already thinking about the next project?

FR: You can’t ever stop, you always have to plan and prepare into the future. Of course, within the club this is being done constantly. I always say it, and I will repeat it: we will have a better team than last year.

JL: Within that planning process, you are always thinking about ways to improve the stadium. The latest initiative is a new restaurant that looks like it should have a Michelin Star.

FR: The restaurant is the cherry on the cake of a beautiful stadium. It will be a point of reunion for the people, with a big patio outside, and open to all guests; it will be a place to hang out and relax, very close to the center of Vila-real. We are also working on changing the pavement in the square. As I said before, Villarreal never stops working. 

JL: Now that we are talking about the stadium–you have had in mind for a while a complete remodeling of the venue, putting a roof over the Priority seats, and finalizing the closing of the stadium on all sides. Where are you in this initiative?

FR: It depends on the four or five houses surrounding the stadium, the ones we have not been able to purchase yet. They were evaluated, and we offered twice that valuation, but we will not pay more than that. 

Whenever we purchase those properties, we will start the comprehensive project in the stadium. It is really more a matter up to the City Council to finish up a stadium that could be a reference point for the city of Vila-real. The project entails putting a roof over the entirety of the Priority stands, and finishing the surrounding arch around the stadium. 

JL: They tell me that you are very excited to see the stadium full of fans again. Soon maybe?

FR: This sport, like society, needs to go back to normal. People are really looking forward to it, and we are all hoping that, at this vaccination pace, we will be able to start the next season very close to that normalcy, or in it. Of course, it is not a matter of wishful thinking, but rather of whatever the health authorities say. 

JL: By the way, what do you say about the magical atmosphere we all lived at La Ceramica against Sevilla? What a party! Smiling faces, people so emotional they were crying–you couldn’t be there, but I know they told you about that. 

FR: Oh, yes, it’s true; I had to watch it from home, but it was beautiful to see everyone so happy, people living it like it was a reunion party, very exciting. We have a very special group of supporters in the way that they are, and I am tremendously proud of them. 

JL: In London I saw you from the stands, and you never stopped getting calls left and right. From the hundreds of messages you have received, which one do you remember fondly?

FR: Yes, it is true that I had a lot of messages conveying happiness. It is hard to highlight one and I don’t like doing it, but, for instance, Cazorla comes to mind. 

I do have to say that I was the one who was receiving them, but they were directed to all our fans, to all whom, as I always say, think in yellow. I am fully expecting to receive even more in Gdansk when we win the Europa League. I’ll keep you posted.

JL: And it will be a journey that will include over two thousand fans of the team in the stadium. It’s a shame there can’t be more, 

FR: Yes, the truth is that we are overwhelmed with the requests to join, and it is very painful to not be able to address every single one of them. Now, we hope everything goes well, and to come back home happy.

Real Madrid 2-1 Villarreal: “To die by the shore.” 

30 minutes daydreaming in Polish leaves three pointless points behind

On a night where goals, and consequences of those goals, splattered all throughout the peninsula across La Liga stadiums, Villarreal managed to toy with an absolutely burned out Real Madrid, and bring them back from the dead with 30 minutes to go, while the Yellow Submarine daydreamed away. 

The news from the capital kept coming through the entire week: Villarreal was solely focused on the final on Wednesday. Emery did not care about what playing the B team would do to the legitimacy of the league. The Yellow Submarine was going to hand the match to Zidane’s man, and that was outrageous. 

As it is often the case when someone who doesn’t have any idea about something talks about that something, these people were wrong. Unai Emery played everyone, everyone who he, is planning on playing in the final.

Rulli featured on goal, a good idea by the Basque manager to give the Argentinean some more minutes to approach the match against Manchester United in form. On defense, bar Juan Foyth, the starting defense: Mario on the right, Spain’s odd couple Pau and Albiol in the center, and Pedraza, an EPL-style horse that keeps showing he can be reliable, on the left.

Capoue, Parejo, Yeremy and Trigueros took ownership of the midfield, and Bacca, fresh from a hattrick, paired with Moreno. 

Nothing to reproach. Nothing to criticize. To the dismay of some and the agreement of others, Emery came to Valdebebas with the starting eleven. 

It showed. Real Madrid, a team that has made obvious that the season ran roughly a half dozen matches too long for them, could only watch as Villarreal, with the serenity of a team playing to one of two European options this season, played slowly, calmly, and intentionally against the inexistent midfield of the local team. The gap in the center was obvious the entire time, and Villarreal took it over.

The display in the first half was palpable. Capoue led with both the prowess to defend, and the physicality to run through one, two, three Real Madrid players at a time, and give the ball to the more talented teammate, even though he liked himself enough to even try a shot. Trigueros helped Pedraza on the left, and Yeremy did the same on the right. 

Special mention deserves the young winger. To me, Pino was the best man of the match for 86 minutes. 

The 18-year-old did it all for Villarreal. Shot the most, dribbled the most, scored the early Villarreal gol with a world class touch and chip, won the most tackles, and overall showed the most talent and will to win, bar Benzema. 

Yeremy graduated today with honors. I am no longer anxious about not having Chukwueze on Wednesday. Yeremy is ready.

In the meantime, in the first half, the rest of the players rotated around Yeremy. Bacca showed will but was extremely erratic and disconnected from the last pass often. He also proved to be no match to the speed of Militao (understandably) and barely lasted an hour. 

Back to square one between him and Alcacer for Wednesday.

While the Pedraza & Trigueros and Mario & Yeremy partnerships worked the wings to choke Real Madrid’s wingers, Moreno ran back from the defense, opened spaces a la Forlan, and at times, left Real Madrid speechless with a one-two touch of magic. 

Even though he was not good towards goal, Moreno did well and seems to be in sync with what is needed of him against Manchester United. Open space, take responsibility, take chances to weave through the defense. Take shots.

The team was creating more and more chances. Real Madrid was watching them come by, hopeless. The visitors’ defense cleared the first line of pressure with ease, and enabled their midfield to have all the space in the world. 

Elsewhere, Celta was even beating Betis, and Villarreal was temporarily fifth. All was good in the world.

After 60 great minutes, and with a few clear chances gone by, Emery’s men started to feel gravitationally attracted towards Gdansk. The final in Poland seemed closer and closer, and nobody wanted to miss it. Moreno let up. A few changes in the team scrambled the way in which they were choking Madrid’s style of play. Parejo was feeling his 52nd match this season in his legs.

The team decided it had been a good day, and started to drop back, solid at first, but with 30 minutes to go, starting to show cracks. And that’s when the sheer pride of Modric, Benzema, Marcelo, “the old guard,” came out to tell La Liga that, in case Atletico did not get three points, they would do their part. 

Real pushed forward, often with disregard the space they were leaving behind them. Villarreal did not take their chances on the counter. In one of the few moments where I have to say I am not happy with the performance of the team, Rully made a high-school level mistake and almost conceded a goal. 

I literally mentioned in last night’s podcast that Rulli’s handling of the ball with his feet makes my heart jump. I’m concerned for Wednesday; I may be one of the few thirty-something, relatively healthy people to die from a stroke if he keeps this up. 

The chances kept coming; and by the end of the match, Moreno, Capoue, Yeremy, Trigueros, were all gone. Who was left on the field tried to hold things together, just a few minutes more. Raba had a few clear chances to at least shoot on goal. News of both Betis and Real Sociedad winning against teams playing for nothing meant there were even less reasons to hold out.

With half of the starting team on the bench, and the other half on the pitch in Poland, pride won out, and Benzema and Modric, with two sensational goals, changed the trajectory of the match in a matter of five minutes. 

No time for more, and the streak of one win in the past twenty-something matches against Real Madrid, continues. 

Nothing much to say, other than at a La Liga match today, there were 60 minutes where Villarreal showed the world why they will play the Europa League final, and that they can beat Manchester United. There were also 30 minutes where the team had nothing to play and everything to rest itself for, and did exactly that. 

Let’s hope it will all make sense on Wednesday.

Last Week of La Liga: Villarreal visits Real Madrid with sights on Wednesday

It’s al happening. Villarreal ends their domestic season with an explosive match against Real Madrid that will decide the championship for Zidane’s men, and which European competition Villarreal will play, bar the Europa League final. 

This week, news from the capital of Spain poured through to the rest of the country around Emery’s will to field a competitive starting eleven against Real Madrid. There were rumors around Atletico’s apparent “outrage” at us not playing Moreno, Parejo, Albiol and Pau, and everybody else, regardless of the most important match in our history playing less than 96 hours from Saturday.

In the end, every team in our position, with a potential title on the line and a qualification to the Champions League as a byproduct of that title, would make sure not to field the same exact eleven that would play in Gdansk. Regardless, there are some things that never change, and this is one of them–comments from all sides on the week of a match against Real, Barcelona and the like, on how we should do or not do something, or make sure to play in a specific way. 

We keep going.

The training session in Vila-real clarified a few things: one, that Juan Foyth is looking more and more fit for the final on Wednesday. The Argentinean will not feature in Valdebebas tomorrow, but is looking to start next week. Music to the ears of Villarreal fans after Juan’s performances, especially in Europa League, this season. A good match by the young player could shore up a full transfer from Tottenham to Villarreal, through a payment of approximately 15 Million Euro Tottenham’s Levy is asking to receive. 

On the other hand, Samu Chukwueze does not seem like he will make the final. A truly big blow for Emery, who has trusted the Nigerian winger through the entirety of the season, and who has shown in big games before. He may make the bench and potentially have a few minutes in him, but he will very likely not start in Gdansk. With that in mind, Yeremy Pino will need minutes against Real tomorrow to keep getting match-fit for Wednesday. 

Speaking of, Yeremy and striker Fer Niño both were called to Spain’s Under-21 national team. Pino and Niño have 10 rollercoaster days: Real Madrid tomorrow, Manchester United on Wednesday, and Croatia, in the quarterfinals of the U-21 Euro, on the 31st. 

Two other quick mentions:I personally still feel that whoever join forces tomorrow with Moreno and Yeremy up front will play in the final. It makes no sense to me to field Bacca last week against Sevilla, tomorrow again, and then ask Paco Alcacer to perform on Wednesday. If Carlos starts tomorrow, I’ll expect him to play against Manchester United. If Paco is the one, Bacca will be a super-sub on Wednesday.

At this point, I want the Colombian to play. He’s won the Europa League twice with Sevilla. He’s scored in finals–and, he just netted a hat-trick against the Andalusian team in La Liga last week. He’s in form and we need to take advantage of that. Play Moreno and Yermy on the wings, and put Bacca up front. 

The last thought goes to Pau Torres. A lot has been written about the young centerback, including a few who spoke to their lack of conviction that Torres could cut it at the highest level. In a lot of ways, they see this week as an audition for the big teams.

Can he stop Benzema on Saturday? Can he do the same with Cavani on Wednesday? If he does, a top team may be willing to splurge the 65 Million Euros that protect his contract. 

I don’t really care about any of that. This week is not an audition for Pau. Mind you, this is the most important week in the history of Villarreal. We need him focused on tomorrow, on the final in Poland, and then, and only then, let’s see where he lands.

My hopes are still that we win the cup, qualify for the Champions League, and are able to retain Pau one more year at least. 

Big week for us. Let’s hope it’s a good one!