Domestic vulnerabilities and underachievement, masked by the sweet taste of European success. That has been the story of Unai Emery’s two years at Villarreal to date. You could even argue that has largely been the story of his entire coaching career, at least in Spain.
One way or another, this year will be different. Not even four months have passed since Villarreal went into the 2nd Half of the 2nd Leg of a Champions League Semi-Final level pegging and with the momentum against Liverpool. There would be an altogether more subdued feel to their next European outing though – Thursday’s 4-2 win over Hajduk Split in a play-off to reach the group stage of the UEFA Conference League, a competition in which even a deep run would not be enough to turn another below-par domestic campaign into a good season.
That match was played out in front of a relatively sparse crowd at Levante’s Estadi Ciutat de València which will be Villarreal’s temporary home for the opening chunk of this campaign, as redevelopment work is carried out at the Estadio de la Cerámica. That’s one added complication that in another year might even have passed off as a convenient excuse. This year though, there is already a sense that this team and perhaps particularly this coach is serious about proving a few doubters wrong and showing they can be more than just a good cup side, by doing the business over 38 games in the league.
A statement victory
The early signs are certainly positive. After a late brace from the unlikely source of 21 year old Alex Baena sealed a 3-0 win at Real Valladolid on the opening weekend, Villarreal travelled to the newly named Cívitas Metropolitano full of confidence. The same could be said though of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, themselves convincing 3-0 winners on the road in their opener.
It was an opportunity for both teams to draw a line under the frailties and failures of last season by registering the kind of statement win that would lay down a real marker early on.
While there was a very early alarm for Villarreal as Alvaro Morata found space inside the visitor’s area inside the opening 20 seconds, from that point onwards, Emery’s side were composed and confident in possession and for large periods seemed to be dictating the tempo of the game, although rarely did they get close enough to seriously test Jan Oblak in the Atleti goal.
The exception came in the 33rd minute when Gerard Moreno rattled the crossbar from close range before bundling the rebound into the net with the help of his hand for a goal that was rightly disallowed. It was a rare moment of excitement though in a relatively cagey game often played at a slow tempo on a hot summer evening in Madrid with temperatures still around 35°C at kick-off.
If anything, the stage seemed to be set for a classic Atleti smash-and-grab. The kind of trademark victory where Atleti conceded much of the possession and soaked up pressure, before striking in the latter stages to claim a narrow win. In some respects that might even have pleased Diego Simeone more than a more dominant victory, following on from a season where they conceded 43 league goals and looked to have lost some of those typical “Atleti” attributes that have defined them over the past decade.
A flurry of 2nd Half changes briefly seemed to turn the tide of the game in the home team’s favour as Atleti suddenly attacked with more pace and energy. Two substitutes combined as Angel Correa so nearly set up Matheus Cunha for the opening goal.
Just when you thought Atleti might be beginning to turn the screw though, a rare error in an otherwise tight and disciplined game, presented Villarreal with a golden chance. A loose clearance from Atleti full-back Nahuel Molina allowed Yeremi Pino in for a clear run at goal and the 19 year old made no mistake, powering his strike past Jan Oblak into the bottom corner to silence the home fans.
Diego Simeone’s side would be miraculously denied by a combination of crossbar and Gerónimo Rulli in the latter stages, but Villarreal quickly regained their composure while their hosts started to lose theirs, with Molina capping a home debut to forget with a red card in Stoppage Time for lashing out at Baena.
There was still time for Villarreal to put the icing on the cake on the break against their increasingly frustrated opponents with Gerard Moreno providing the finishing touch to seal a 2-0 win and rub salt into Atleti wounds with almost the last kick of the game in the 98th minute.
Lessons learned from last season?
This may only be matchday two, so it’s clearly too early to make any definitive conclusions, but on this evidence Villarreal may just have learned one or two lessons from their struggles during the early part of last season.
That period was perhaps best defined by this very fixture last August. That was matchday 3 and Villarreal went into the game on the back of two opening draws. Again they went into the closing fifteen minutes having just taken the lead, only for a comical mix-up between Aissa Mandi and Gerónimo Rulli deep into Stoppage Time to deny them what would have been an equally significant victory.
That was part of a sequence that saw the Yellow Submarine draw all of their opening six games in all competitions. Indeed Villarreal would win just 3 of their opening 15 LaLiga matches, failing to record a road victory until a 3-1 success at Real Sociedad in December.
To already have two away wins before the end of August this time around is obviously a massive boost, although depending on how they take to life at their temporary home in Valencia, there may be added pressure on them to have more joy on their travels.
Top four the target
Even before a ball was kicked this season, Villarreal were being looked at as the team most capable of gatecrashing the top four, most likely at the expense of a Sevilla side that appeared to have been significantly weakened by summer departures.
Everything we’ve seen in the opening two weeks appears to only add weight to that theory, although Unai Emery is clearly in no mood for getting carried away.
“It was a nice match, very competitive, at a high level. We are very proud to be at this level. The problem is going to be maintaining regularity at such high levels.” he explained following the victory over Atleti.
“We see Madrid who are monstrous. There is Barcelona, who drew the other day, but will be there, because it has individual and collective potential. Atletico Madrid will be there, Sevilla too. And we, Betis, Real Sociedad or Athletic are trying to find a place to see if we can be close to them”.
We saw Real Sociedad and eventually Sevilla buckle last season once talk of a surprise title challenge began to take hold. It’s only natural that Emery may want to cool expectations before people start speaking seriously about his side in a similar light.
However when it comes to the race for the top four, the objective is clear and Villarreal are not just contenders for that coveted 4th place but now surely the favourites to join the established “big three” in securing Champions League qualification this season.
Sevilla haven’t impressed at all, falling to defeat at Osasuna before needing a late Karim Rekik goal to salvage a point from their home game against newly promoted Real Valladolid. Indeed, unless there is a very strong end to the window at the Sanchez-Pizjuan, it may well be that Betis are the Seville club most likely to challenge Villarreal for 4th, although Los Verdiblancos have problems of their own despite starting the season with two wins.
Villarreal’s top four credentials should be aided if they continue to seriously prioritise LaLiga over the Conference League, something that Unai Emery’s team selections over the past four days would certainly suggest will be the case.
The challenge, as Emery eluded to, will be finding the kind of consistency that has been so badly lacking at times. In 2022 alone they’ve defeated European giants Juventus and Bayern Munich over two legs, but also lost league games at Elche, Osasuna, Cadiz, Levante and Alaves.
Without the distraction of Europe’s premier or even secondary competition, there can be no excuses for anything more than the very occasional off day in LaLiga this season. It’s time for what is now a battle-hardened and experienced team to show their metal and demonstrate their considerable quality on a weekly basis over the course of a whole season.