- Castellón club lie fifth in La Liga, two points behind fourth-placed Athletic Bilbao.
- Have found goals and creativity under stewardship of Marcelino García Toral.
Football on the continent loves a surprise package. Hellas Verona are punching above their weight delightfully in Serie A following promotion- after two decades in the wilderness. Vitesse Arnhem have caught Dutch football by surprise with their dazzling shopping-window showcase of Chelsea’s youthful talent whilst Lokomotiv Moscow have rekindled former glory’s by locking themselves together with mega-rich Zenit in a battle to be kings of Russia. Then there is Villarreal.
El Submarino Amarillo lie only two points adrift from the top four after a half-season of tremendous results in a dramatic re-announcement of their top tier credentials. Under the trusted guidance of Marcelino Garcia Toral, Villarreal have put five past Real Sociedad and Rayo Vallecano in recent weeks and dismantled a paltry Valencia 4-1 back in October in a heavily one-sided Valencian derby. They flew out the blocks in August, hungry to set an early marker down after the indignation of 12 months in Spain’s second-tier, winning their first three impressively against Almeria, Valladolid and Osasuna. Arguably their finest results, however, have come against the two Madrid clubs. Frustrating Real to a 2-2 draw in September, they ensured three points were again not heading back to the capital by holding Atletico 1-1 at El Madrigal. But how have they recaptured this form so quickly following their re-introduction to the big time?
In 2012, Villarreal produced a disastrous campaign reminiscent of Newcastle’s horror showing in the Premier League 08-09 season, leaving their fans speechless and dumbfounded as to the reason for their spectacular demise. They began that same season in the Champions League, eyes fixated on mouthwatering ties against Bayern Munich, Napoli and Manchester City and although aspirations of progressing through such a formidable group were slim, the consensus was that they deserved to be there, rubbing shoulders with Europe’s finest.
Fans can only wince and shudder at the memory of what came next. After having been dumped out of the Champions League embarrassingly after failing to register a single point, the club descended rapidly into a relegation dogfight. Juan Carlos Garrido had guided them to a respectable fourth-place finish the previous season but was sacked following a dismal run of results in December and the club appeared to be capitulating before everyone’s eyes. Reeling from shifts in management and rock-bottom morale, captain Marcos Senna and his troops came into a day etched in Spanish football folklore, exactly the kind of final-day battle for survival they didn’t want.
Facing Atletico Madrid, who were fresh off a Europa League triumph, Villarreal looked to have done just about enough to survive as they clung desperately onto 0-0. Then, the hearts of thousands inside El Madrigal dropped and shattered as not only did Atletico score an 88th minute header, news filtered through that Rayo Vallecano scored a last-gasp goal against Granada which sent Villarreal down. They were utterly stunned. Falling to the pitch in disbelief, the players struggled to comprehend how they had come from leading their fans on a great odyssey, that had included a Champions League semi-final in 2006 and a runners-up finish in the league two years later, to the suffocating despairs of relegation.
A team that had become accustomed to the upper echelons of European football had fallen apart dramatically, wrecking years of productive work within the club. Star player Santi Cazorla was sold at the beginning of the campaign to Arsenal, a transfer which magnified in significance after leading scorer Giuseppe Rossi tore and re-tore his knee ligaments and left his team-mates searching hopelessly for a new source of inspiration. It seemed like shattering blow after shattering blow.
Marcos Senna had enjoyed great success with Villarreal and the Spanish national side, helping the latter to win Euro 2008, and his words following relegation seem now distinctly prophetic.
“All I can say is we got it wrong, there is no need to look for culprits. This club does not deserve to be in the second division for everything it represents, I am sure we will rise again.”
Rise they did. Securing second place in the Segunda Division meant promotion back to the top immediately and the resurfacing of the Yellow Submarine. This season, they do not look a team haunted by their relegation ghosts of past. Better yet, they look a side mirroring the success of the Pellegrini-era determined to reclaim their Champions League status. The attacking duo of Ikechukwu Uche and Tottenham Hotspur misfit Giovani Dos Santos have lit up El Madrigal once again with 19 league goals between them. The case of Dos Santos is one which bears particular resonance. The 24- year old Mexican international has struggled ever since being touted as a potential world beater but he has brought maturity and consistency to his already mercurial natural abilities to comprise the attacking focal point in a team who have well and truly cemented their Champions League challenge. Uche has supplemented the Mexican’s form with his appetite in front of goal; 11 times in 10 matches suggesting that he may be back in the frame in the Nigerian national team in time for the World Cup.
Toral knows he has a job to do. Perhaps playing with heavy hearts in the memory of Manuel Preciado Rebolledo, the man who was initially charged with the task of bringing Villarreal back up from second-tier football, who tragically died of a heart attack the day he was announced as manager. What is clear though is that Toral has his team playing the right kind of football. Abandoning the dour defensive strategies of relegation-specialist Miguel Angel Lotina, Toral has brought back Dos Santos back to prominence while adding creativity and width to the midfield.
They may yet find themselves in another showdown finale this season but luckily for those who hold Villarreal close, it’ll be the right fight; the fight for the right to once again play in the Champions League.