Villarreal on the decline as they get ready to face Real Madrid
On Tuesday April 25 2006 Juan Román Riquelme took the biggest penalty-kick in Villarreal’s history.
If Riquelme scored the La Liga side - who had already overcome Everton, Manchester United and Juventus – would go to extra-time against Arsenal to decide who reached that season’s Champions League final.
Riquelme was then 28 and widely recognised as among the best players in the world. That he was playing for Villarreal - a small club from suburban Valencia which first reached Spain’s top flight in 1998 - was almost unbelievable.
However the Argentine - along with fellow south Americans Diego Forlán and Juan Pablo Sorín - was part of a team which had deservedly taken their place among Europe’s best sides. With their attacking football, bright shirts and Beatles-inspired nickname, the Yellow Submarine were many people’s favourite Spanish team.
Unfortunately for Riquelme and his side’s many new fans, Arsenal keeper Jens Lehman saved the poorly-struck penalty. Arsenal advanced to the final, and Villarreal slumped to a seventh place La Liga finish.
Twelve months later they finished second, but Forlán then joined Atlético Madrid and Riquelme returned to Argentinian club football. Villarreal’s best ever era ended when coach Manuel Pellegrini left for Real Madrid in summer 2009.
Meanwhile, off the pitch, club president and ceramics magnate Fernando Roig was also in trouble. When Spain’ construction bubble burst, Roig dramatically scaled back his financial support. The wages to attract world stars like Riquelme and Forlán were no longer affordable, and the club slipped back.
Last year brought a mini-revival under former Villarreal-B Juan Carlos Garrido, when survivors from 2006 like Marcos Senna and Gonzalo and clever signings such as Borja Valero and Giuseppe Rossi played some more swashbuckling football to finish fourth.
Even still Villarreal’s best player - Santi Cazorla - was sold to Málaga (where he was reunited with Pellegrini) for the €20m (Dh97m) needed to keep creditors at bay.
The current season has been a disaster. Their Champions League group was difficult, but six defeats from six games was very disappointing.
When Garrido was sacked in December after an embarrassing Copa del Rey exit to third-tier Mirandés, Villarreal were 17th of La Liga’s 20 clubs.
There was a brief renaissance under José Molina, but that quickly fizzled out and he was fired on Sunday with the club 17th again.
On Monday Miguel Ángel Lotina was named the club’s third coach of the season.
He said: “To our fans I would say that the squad is good enough to stay in the division. We will be successful if we all pull together.”
These words have been received cautiously.
Lotina was in charge as Deportivo la Coruña were relegated last May after 20 years in the Primera División. It is not difficult to draw parallels. Depor are a small club which over-achieved in reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 2004. Last year’s side were viewed as too good to go down, but under Lotina they did.
Similarly, a side containing Gonzalo, Senna, Valero and Nilmar should have enough quality to avoid relegation this year, but having fallen so far so quickly, momentum is not in their favour.