In much the same way Athletic Bilbao have suddenly become everyone’s second favourite team following their heroics against Manchester United—or indeed, the flavour of the month—Villarreal used to offer up similar alternatives to the big two in Spain in Real Madrid and Barcelona. If you were looking for a attractive football complemented with players capable of executing the free-flowing ideologies of the club’s ethos, then the Yellow Submarine were an exceptional offering, especially for those looking for strength in Spanish football besides the two regular heavyweights.
What has been deeply saddening is the way in which Villarreal have crumbled this season following their fourth-placed finish in the league last year and the quality they displayed on countless occasions. This is a team who are now dangerously close to the relegation spots, a team who have sacked a second manager this season, and who have only won back-to-back games once all year. There’s a very real possibility that if the Yellow Submarine sink into the second division in Spain, it may be a very long time before they surface in the top flight again.
The positives for the club at the moment is that they do not make up part of the 752 million euros owed to the taxman as much of Spanish football do. They have continued to go about their business in a respectable manner, selling in order to buy; the meagre capacity of 25,000 at El Madrigal is reflective of this, but their showing in European competition in recent years is suggestive of a team who are very much on the up.
Even without the threat of relegation this year there was always a certainty that key players would be moved on. A move for star striker Giuseppe Rossi to Barcelona failed to materialise last summer, while the club were desperately trying to find a buyer for the Italian’s strike partner Nilmar in the winter transfer window. Despite losing Rossi in October for six months to injury—a striker who netted 32 times last season—Nilmar’s sale was vital for the club who had struggled to pay their players.
But the problems are a little deeper than their failure to find the net on a consistent basis this year—deputy Marco Reuben is just not of the quality of Rossi or Nilmar—the club lost their creative spark, their ‘real’ talisman and their identity on the pitch and in the dressing room when Santi Cazorla joined Malaga last summer for 21 million euros. Dubbed ‘Our Ronaldinho’ by his team-mates, the Spanish winger was just as influential to Villarreal as the Brazilian was to Barcelona in the early-mid 2000s. He was their driving force on the pitch, was an extremely likeable and funny character in the dressing room, and was perhaps the closest thing they had to the superstars in the squads of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Much like the club will need to do this summer, they desperately needed to shift one of their star players and bring in serious money. The proceeds from Cazorla’s sale went on Udinese’s defender Cristian Zapata, who has not done the job at the back for the side this season, and Jonathan de Guzman from Mallorca.
The transformation from a team who recently finished second in La Liga and qualified for this season’s Champions League via fourth place last year to a team on the brink of relegation is sure to spark an number of big name exits in the summer. Borja Valero, despite having failed to make an impression at West Brom in 2008/09, is sure to be on the radar of many clubs with a much greater standing than the midlands club—Barcelona have in the past been singled-out as a possible destination. While goalkeeper Diego Lopez, midfielder Bruno, defender Gonzalo Rodriguez and, of course, strikers Nilmar and Rossi are all capable of going abroad and making an impression.
The arrivals of Juan Mata, David Silva and Sergio Aguero in the Premier League, and specifically the success of the latter two, are sure to open the door for a smaller, technically gifted footballer in the shape of those at Villarreal.