The Spanish side followed up their stunning victory over Italian giants Juventus in the round of 16 by ousting Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals.
Villarreal midfielder Etienne Capoue celebrates after the game against Bayern Munich. —AFP
At a time when a clique of super clubs have cemented their grip on the Champions League and the riches that come with it, Villarreal’s surprise progress to the semi-finals of Europe’s elite competition is one to savor.
The Spaniards followed up their stunning victory over Italian giants Juventus in the round of 16 by ousting Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals, a 1-1 draw in Germany on Tuesday taking them 2-1 on aggregate.
The club known as the ‘Yellow Submarine’ and hailing from a city of just 50,000 people made it through to the semi-finals against all odds, but deserved to be there thanks to the exceptional work done under the direction of coach Unai Emery.
However, on Tuesday, he was quick to praise Fernando Roig, whose presence reminds us that a small club can only hope to go so far if it has the support of a very wealthy benefactor.
Roig is the billionaire owner of ceramics company Pamesa who bought Villarreal – just north of Valencia on Spain’s east coast – in 1997 and turned their fortunes around completely.
A year later they had been promoted to the Spanish top flight and in 2006 they reached their first Champions League semi-final under Manuel Pellegrini, losing to Arsenal.
Last year they lifted their first major trophy by beating Manchester United on penalties in the Europa League final, a competition Emery won three times in charge of Sevilla.
But the Champions League, which has grown even more closed in the 16 years since Villarreal have come this far, is once again a step up.
“We’re not here so people can say how cool or nice we are, that we come from a small town like Asterix and Obelix,” Emery said.
“No no. We have a very solid and stable project put in place by the Roig family that dates back many years. We have already played the semi-finals. A lot of work and preparation has gone into this.
Emery may have sought to kill the idea that Villarreal’s progress is some kind of fairy tale, but he still upset the odds.
Roig has helped Villarreal establish themselves as a La Liga force, but the club’s budget pales in comparison to their Champions League rivals.
In December, the club, seventh in La Liga, announced expected revenue for this season of 139 million euros ($150 million).
That figure wouldn’t put them in the top 30 of the most recent Deloitte Football Money League, which ranks the richest clubs in the world.
By contrast, Bayern were third on this list with revenues of over €600m in the pandemic-hit last season.
Money usually comes first, but Villarreal had already won famous victories over Juventus and United, two others ranked among the 10 richest in the world.
The other club to reach the semi-finals on Tuesday, Real Madrid, had the second highest turnover in the world last season.
On Tuesday, Emery’s side so absorbed pressure from Bayern that they had just 35 per cent possession and just four attempts on goal to their opponents’ 24.
The defensive strategy worked.
“It’s unbelievable. I think we shocked Europe,” said French midfielder Etienne Capoue, one of many players who could be described as Premier League flops along with Juan Foyth, Alberto Moreno, Francis Coquelin and Giovanni Lo Celso.
Villarreal’s progress comes as clubs scramble to reserve two places in the new expanded 36-team Champions League from 2024 for teams, who have failed to qualify through the usual channels, but have a high UEFA coefficient ranking.
This was interpreted as a potential safety net for the giants who have had a bad season despite Villarreal’s coefficient over the past two years being among the best and they don’t want to stop in the semi-finals.
“We can dream,” Emery said BT Sports.
“We cannot be satisfied with what we have done. You have to be ambitious. »
Bayern’s Nagelsmann ready to face the music
Bayern Munich manager Julian Nagelsmann is ready to hit the music after their Champions League quarter-final exit, while trying to sign his side to seal the Bundesliga title for some consolation.
The Bavarians only have to fight for the title of champion. “I don’t really know what’s coming my way. But when we lose and get knocked out, it’s bound to happen,” said Nagelsmann, in his first season at Bayern.
“I’m not afraid of that. There is much worse than that. »
The 34-year-old, whose side were also knocked out of the German Cup in the second round, will try to lift his players ahead of the league match at Arminia Bielefeld on Sunday.
Leaders Bayern are nine points clear with five games to go and a victory in Bielefeld would virtually guarantee the title.
Bayern are also busy making their transfer plans for the summer with several players likely to leave, including top scorer Robert Lewandowski.
The first priority, however, is for his side to dig deep and finish the season strong, especially after lackluster performances in their last five league games, which included two draws and a shaky 1-0 win over Augsburg last week.
“I will continue to do my job and prepare for the Bundesliga,” Nagelsmann said. “The team has enough experience with good and bad times. You win together and you lose together and you have to play the next games together.
“Obviously a lot of the motivation is now gone after that Champions League elimination,” he conceded.
The league title is Bayern’s top priority every season and club CEO Oliver Kahn says the focus should now be on that.
“We won’t start shedding tears. Next year we will attack again,” Kahn said. “We now have the incredible opportunity to become champions for the 10th time in a row. We are going to focus on that and give everything we have.”