That unbelievable triumph was rewarded with qualification to the esteemed Champions League, the most important club competition in world football. Automatic qualification was assured after Villarreal C.F. beat the English team Everton. Villarreal C.F. were not in the Champions League just to make up the numbers and qualified for the knock-out stages by finishing top of their group, a group which included the mighty Manchester United. Astoundingly this small team in Spain whom 16 years before were playing in the 4th “division” of Spanish football, beat Glasgow Rangers and Inter Milan to progress to the Champions League semi-final. In a close fought game against Arsenal, Villarreal C.F. agonisingly failed at the final hurdle. The dream had ended but I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Following the rapid growth of Villarreal CF over the last decade, the club now returns to the Champions’ League for the second time in its history. As it did in the 2005-6 season, the tones of the Champions’ League hymn will once again ring out at the Madrigal, a prize for the team’s efforts, sacrifices and consistently high levels of football. Unlike the club’s previous experience in the Champions’ League, this time the Submarine has guaranteed itself a place into the group phase of the competition -avoiding the qualifying stages- thanks to a brilliant campaign that saw it finish runners-up in the league on 77 points.
The club has once again surpassed itself as it has demonstrated over the past decade a constant growth based on hard work and sensible housekeeping. Without doubt the club’s previous successes in Europe over the past few years when it reached the semi-finals of the Champions’ League in 2005-6 (losing to Arsenal), the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2003-4 (losing to Valencia), and the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2004-5 (losing to AZ Alkmaar), have guaranteed the club’s progress. A progress reflected by the club’s uninterrupted participation in European competitions since 2002-3. The great performances have been sustained thanks to its relatively recent appearances in Europe. Villarreal has scored in 59 of its 70 matches played in European competitions (32 UEFA, 24 Intertoto, 14 Champions), winning 34, drawing 25 and losing just 11. It has scored almost twice as many goals as it has conceded, with 92 goals for, 48 against.
The key to the Champions’ League
Villarreal first contested the Champions’ League in the 2005-6 season after finishing third at the end of the 2004-5 season after a campaign that saw Diego Forlán win the ‘pichichi’ and the club win a place in the qualifying rounds of the tournament after what was at the time, the finest league campaign in the club’s history.
It faced no less a rival than Everton for a place in the group stages, with the ‘Yellows’ coming out on top 2-1 in both legs to earn a place in the group phase.
Unbeaten Group Stage winners
Villarreal, probably one of the least fancied sides in the group stages found itself matched up with Manchester United, Benfica and Lille. The Submarine proved itself to be strong, showing no fear against the mighty Manchester United drawing both home and away legs, and taking the points against Benfica at the La Luz stadium thanks to a 30 metre wonder strike from Marcos Senna.
En route to the final stages
Glasgow Rangers was Villarreal’s first opponent in the final stage. The ‘Yellows’ deserved better luck in the away leg of this last 16 contest, coming away with a 2-2 draw, having taken the lead twice. However a 1-1 draw in the return leg at the Madrigal launched Villarreal into the quarter-finals and kept the dream alive.
Waiting for them there was, Italy’s Inter one of Europe’s top clubs. Once again the Submarine rose to the occasion despite losing the away leg 2-1 and a heroic header from Arruabarrena earned victory in an epic battle that confounded the tipsters and sent the Villarreal faithful into dreamland.
Arsenal shatter the Yellows’ dream
Out of the four best sides in Europe, Villarreal found itself facing Arsenal in the semi-finals. The Yellows went down by the only goal of the game in the first leg at Highbury leaving itself a chance to turn the match around at the Madrigal. A supreme effort was not quite enough to overcome the English side in the return leg and Villarreal found itself left behind at the final gates (a final won by Barcelona who beat Arsenal in Paris to take the Champions’ League).