• Villarreal coach Unai Emery. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
These are indeed heady days for Villarreal, the low-profile club from the Spanish province of Castellon that has a rare opportunity to snare the first major honour in its history.
Philip Micallef

SBS The World Game
21 May 2021 - 3:09 PM  UPDATED 21 May 2021 - 3:09 PM

The team that was founded in the industrial town of Vila-real in 1923 and became known in Spain as ‘El Submarino Amarillo’ (Yellow Submarine) after the Beatles released their album of the same name in 1969 has actually saved the blushes of Spanish football by storming into its maiden final.

On Thursday (AEST) they face warm favourites Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League decider in Gdansk, Poland.

At the end of a season in which LaLiga’s ‘big three’ were unceremoniously dumped from the UEFA Champions League, Villarreal are Spain’s last hope of leaving a mark on this season’s continental competitions.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid were all found wanting in their battles with Europe’s elite, prompting critics to suggest that Spain’s long domination of European football is over.

Madrid were outplayed by Chelsea in the semi-finals while Barcelona and Atletico were comprehensively beaten by Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea respectively in the round of 16.

Sevilla compounded Spain’s misery by losing to Borussia Dortmund at the same stage.

Which is why Vlllarreal, even by reaching the final of the lesser Europa League, have restored a degree of pride to a wounded football nation.

The side managed by Unai Emery had an easy group to deal with but they raised a few eyebrows in the knockout phase thanks to the scoring feats of Spanish international striker Gerard Moreno.

After beating Salzburg and Dynamo Kyiv rather comfortably they rode their luck to overcome Dynamo Zagreb in the quarter-finals before eliminating Emery's previous club Arsenal in the semi-finals to avenge their defeat to the Londoners in the semi-finals of the 2005-06 Champions League.

Villarreal’s is a heart-warming story of an unpretentious club from a small town in a Spanish region that is not known for football excellence.

They made their debut in Spain’s top division in 1998-99 and were relegated in their first season among the big boys … but got back up immediately.

They spent 12 seasons among Spain’s elite during which they finished second behind Real Madrid in 2007-08 thanks largely to 17 clean sheets for their best ever finish in the league.

Villarreal unfortunately could not build on that success and four years later they suffered another relegation.

Yet the ‘submarines’ resurfaced the following season and have been in the top flight ever since. They are a very stable organisation and look like they will be staying among the elite for a long while.

Their contribution to European football is nowhere as formidable as that of the two Madrid teams, Barca and Seville.

But they had a few impressive runs over the years.

On their continental debut they reached the semi-finals of the 2003-04 UEFA Cup before losing 1-0 on aggregate to ‘neighbours’ Valencia 1-0.

With Argentine fantasista Juan Roman Riquelme running the show, Villarreal went all the way to the 2005-06 Champions League semi-finals before losing narrowly to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. 

The Gunners won the first leg at Highbury 1-0 and Riquelme uncharacteristically missed a penalty in a 0-0 draw at the La Ceramica.

Villarreal reached the Europa League semi-finals in 2010-11 thanks largely to Italian striker Giuseppe Rossi’s 11 goals before being beaten by eventual winners Porto.

And in 2015-16 they contested their fourth Euro semi-final in 13 seasons before losing to Liverpool 4-1 on aggregate in the Europa League.

Villarreal are unlikely to topple Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s very strong if inconsistent side even though the experienced Emery might have a few moves up his sleeve in a bid to cause a surprise and boost his impressive record in the competition.

He led Seville to three straight titles from 2014 to 2016 and guided Arsenal to the final in 2019.

Yet regardless of whether Villarreal can win their first ever trophy, they certainly have done themselves and Spanish football proud while their far more famous compatriots fell by the wayside.