Champions League: Unai Emery’s Villarreal has shades of 2006 team that made an improbable UCL semifinal run

If you told Villarreal CF supporters in 2012 that their beloved club would one day not only grace the UEFA Champions League again but reach the semifinals as they did back in 2006 few, if any, would have believed you.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, El Submarino Amarillo suffered the ignominy of relegation from La Liga and a year in the purgatory of Spanish second tier soccer coupled with the tragic loss of the larger-than-life Manolo Preciado just hours after he was tasked with getting the Castellon club promoted.

That relegation, which happened only six years after their 1-0 aggregate loss to Arsenal in 2006, when Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann saved a late Juan Roman Riquelme penalty to send Arsene Wenger’s Gunners to the final, threatened to disappear Villareal back to the lower divisions they emerged from against the odds back in 1998.

Truly it’s been a whirlwind generation for this small side from the east of Spain. Promotion in 1998, a Champions League semifinal in 2006, relegation for a season in 2012 an now, sixteen years after their last trip, and with the Champions League final once again at Stade de France in Saint-Denis, the Spaniards are two semifinal legs away from the showpiece event and it is a strong likelihood that they will face another Premier League team in the form of Liverpool.

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Back in 2006, Villarreal’s first Champions League fairytale was overseen by Manuel Pellegrini, who is now attempting a similar feat with La Liga rivals Real Betis, after moving on to the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester City either side of another improbable European adventure with Malaga CF.

This time around, Unai Emery is the man weaving his magic with a similar collection of players to his Chilean predecessor albeit perhaps without an individual as brilliant as the capricious Riquelme who found an unlikely home at El Madrigal before it changed name to Estadio de la Ceramica.

Much of Pellegrini’s success was built around the gifted Argentine schemer, with the prolific Diego Forlan, the tireless Marcos Senna, and the underrated brilliance of players like Juan Pablo Sorin who was plucked on a free after an impressive loan spell with Paris Saint-Germain from Cruzeiro.

Today’s group is perhaps more functional, but Dani Parejo is a superb talent in the middle with Etienne Capoue and Francis Coquelin bringing mettle alongside him. Raul Albiol marshals the defense brilliantly and Gerard Moreno is a consistent goal threat up top.

“In the first leg we made the mistake of not finishing the tie and all the comments serve as motivation for us,” said the Spain international after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at Allianz Arena. “Bayern made the mistake of not killing us off and we took advantage of that.

“What this team has done is great, we deserved to go through. We knew we were going to suffer in defense, but we were going to have our chances and, in the end, [Samuel] Chukwueze was able to make the most of it.”

What Pellegrini’s vintage had over Emery’s is perhaps two elite talents in Riquelme and Forlan but the latter boasts a more youthful group than the former’s experienced unit thanks to the likes of Chukwueze, Arnaut Danjuma, Juan Foyth and Giovani Lo Celso.

Both squads give off distinct journeyman vibes when you look at their makeup on paper and how the group came to be constructed with Lo Celso a loanee in the way that Riquelme was when Villarreal went on their legendary run to the semis.

Another similarity between the Pellegrini and Emery eras is a strong concentration of tried and tested domestic talent with Albiol at 36 a veteran of continental campaigns with regional rivals Valencia CF, Real and SSC Napoli but Parejo, Moreno, and Pau Torres also staple presences.

Both bosses also forged incredibly strong collective mentalities among their troops with unselfish and hardworking players who totally buy in and share the strategic vision of both Pellegrini then and Emery now.

“It is an extraordinary feeling, it was not easy for us,” said the ex-Arsenal and PSG boss. “We are moving forward step by step, we had a quarterfinal, very difficult, but our goal before this game was not to give a good image of us — it was to qualify.

“To achieve something, you have to do important things and beat the favorites. That (round of 16) game against Juventus gave us a lot of confidence. In the semifinals, we will try to create circumstances so that we have our chances. Liverpool are a great team and Benfica too.”

Although the temptation is strong to inextricably link the two Champions League outings and there are several very spooky coincidences such as this year’s Paris final after the venue change owing to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, these are two very different stories.

Equally unexpected, Pellegrini’s men were unable to deliver on their exceptional feats with any silverware and Villarreal remained without a major trophy until Emery led them to last season’s UEFA Europa League title — perhaps sets this current crop apart.

Adding to the impressive nature of this achievement is how much bigger the financial gap between the Spaniards and the likes of conquered Juventus and Bayern Munich is today compared with nearly two decades ago when their budget was still considered relatively shoestring.

What is undisputable about both of Villarreal’s semifinal feats is that they thrive in the role of the underdog and there are not many better fits in the European game at present that Emery and El Submarino Amarillo as they await confirmation of their final four opponents.

It almost feels as if these plucky underdogs will want to come up against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool as there is no chance of being considered favorites while SL Benfica dumping the Reds out at Anfield might qualify as a bigger upset than Villarreal advancing in Munich.

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