BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Juventus and Bayern Munich learned the hard way that Villarreal, despite its modest reputation, is no pushover even in Europe’s elite competition.
Now the club from a small town of 50,000 inhabitants in eastern Spain must get past one more giant standing in the way of a dream appearance in its first Champions League final.
Liverpool hosts Villarreal on Wednesday at the always intimidating Anfield. Villarreal will hope to reproduce the upsets that it pulled off against Juventus in the round-of-16 and Bayern in the quarterfinals, or at least avoid a definitive defeat, before it hosts the return leg next week.
“They are the favorites, but we have our strengths that will allow us to compete,” Unai Emery, whose strength as a coach is strategizing for knockout competition, said on Tuesday.
“We are here because we have our credentials after having gotten through the previous rounds against important rivals. The challenge is even greater now after Juventus and Bayern Munich, and we have to work hard to play our best both collectively and individually.”
Relatively unknown among casual soccer fans outside Spain, Villarreal has for years established a reputation for being one of the best-run Spanish clubs. Regardless of the coach or the squad members, the team known domestically as “The Yellow Submarine” for its bright banana-colored uniforms, continually produces attractive, attack-first teams, which like to have the ball.
Owner Fernando Roig, a billionaire businessman who owns a local ceramics company and a share of a highly successful supermarket chain, is credited with having built and maintained a stable club with a great eye for bringing in talented players without breaking the budget.
Villarreal reached its only other Champions League semifinals in 2009 and finished the Spanish league in second place in 2008 under Manuel Pellegrini. But it reached its top glory last season when Emery steered it to the Europa League title, its first major trophy in club history, after beating Manchester United on penalties in the final.
That was Emery’s fourth Europa League title as a coach, after winning Europe’s second-tier tournament three times with Sevilla. But eliminating Juventus and Bayern back-to-back is arguably his greatest achievement, and comes as he rebuilds his reputation at Villarreal following a tough time at Arsenal.
“(Emery) is a detail-obsessed manager,” his Liverpool counterpart, Jurgen Klopp, said on Tuesday. “Different ways to press and react to different results. A world-class coach doing an incredible job.”
Villarreal has lost only once in its entire Champions League campaign this season, a 2-0 defeat to United in the group phase. Otherwise, it has overachieved. Its 3-0 victory at Juventus last month was one its fans will relish for years.
“We’re looking forward to a game against an opponent in great shape,” Villarreal midfielder Dani Parejo said Tuesday. “We’re going there with all the confidence in the world, we are strong together. We made history last year by winning the (Europa League) and we are making history this year too, and that’s no coincidence. It is having confidence in a project that has been in place for years.”
Villarreal will arrive to the game after eight days of rest, compared to Liverpool’s three. And while Liverpool is also fighting for the Premier League title, Villarreal is focused on its historic chance in Europe while sitting seventh in Spain.
“There might have been a little advantage in their last two games — maybe Juve or Bayern underestimated them,” Klopp said of Villarreal. ”But that will never happen to us.”
The backbone of Villarreal is formed by Parejo, Spain striker Gerard Moreno, and centerback pair Raúl Albiol and Pau Torres.
But Villarreal has also given second chances to players who didn’t make it in England. Midfielders Giovani Lo Celso and Etienne Capoue and right back Juan Foyth have found in Villarreal a place to finally shine after frustrating stints at Tottenham.
Emery’s main dilemma before kickoff is the readiness of Gerard. The Spain striker injured his right leg two weeks ago after scoring and setting up a goal in a 2-1 win over Getafe.
If Gerard is not available, the scoring burden will fall to Arnaut Danjuma, who a season after playing in England’s second-tier with Bournemouth now leads Villarreal with 16 goals across all competitions. Samuel Chukwueze is one of la Liga’s top dribblers and the winger arrives on a high after his late goal in Munich ousted the Bundesliga powerhouse.
Liverpool’s only absentee is striker Roberto Firmino, who is still hampered by a foot injury.