Breaking up a pair: Villarreal CF’s second-place finish in LaLiga
When people think of the two best teams in LaLiga, they always think of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Perhaps Lionel Messi’s star power has something to do with it, but those two teams have also had the most league wins and vie for the top two spots nearly every season. It’s no wonder that their meetings are considered ‘El Clásico’, the classic rivalry, the classic competition for first place in the league. This presupposition, that these two will always be the first and second place teams in the league, is why fans of the Yellow Submarine still boast about the 2007/08 season, when Villarreal CF broke up the pair and took second place from Barcelona.
One of the most important factors going into the season was our Chilean champion, the most acclaimed coaches the team has ever had, Manuel Pellegrini. Pellegrini had an immediate success in his very first season back in 2004, when he led the team to a record third in LaLiga. His ability to pick out players and play them in the positions that most benefit the team is unparallelled, but he attributed his success to Villarreal’s supportive owner, Fernando Roig. In a recent interview with the Independent, Pellegrini reminisced about Roig’s trust in his ability to build a team, “He always accepts what the manager says, in the way you build the squad, in the way you play. That is why he chooses you.” That trust in Pellegrini led the team very far this season in particular, and the players were able to play at the top of their game as a result.
Villarreal had an all-star lineup that season, and those players became historic figures for the team. Marcos Senna had been a pillar on the squad for a long time and continued to serve as a legendary midfielder and penalty kick specialist, scoring more than a few game-winning goals. Our golden boy, Bruno, started to play for the team regularly this season, beginning his stint as the player with most appearances in the team’s history. Top strikers, Giuseppe Rossi and Nihat Kahveci played at the top of their game this season, with Nihat scoring 18 goals over the course of 38 games, the highest for the side and fourth-highest in the entire league. With such a talented team of players, Villarreal’s success was inevitable, but the road to get there was still full of close games and exciting upsets.
Villarreal’s first game of the season was a great indicator for how the rest of the season would go. In a match against Valencia, Villarreal played at their best, not conceding a single goal to their neighbours from the Valencian community. In fact, Rossi, who would go on to become the record holder for most goals scored for Villarreal, scored his very first goal in this game, the first of his career at the Yellows. Villarreal ended that game with a score of 3–0, an absolutely dominating performance that was a sign of their great success to come.
Over the next several games, Villarreal kept up a nice win ratio, keeping pace with Real Madrid and Barcelona and always being within a few points of first place. This series of early successes culminated in Villarreal’s closest match of the season, their first match against Atlético Madrid in the 11th game of the season. Going into this game, Villarreal was tied with Barcelona for second place in the standings, and both teams were a few points away from catching up with Real Madrid. A loss or even a draw here could have meant a huge setback for what was the closest a team could be to first place. As high as the stakes were, it was the match itself that was so full of tension. Within the first 25 minutes of the game, Atlético had scored twice without giving Villarreal even a shot on goal. Our players were able to get the score to 3–3, but as the end of the game approached, Villarreal could not get anything into the net. As the game clock ticked down into its last minutes, hope seemed lost for a victory, until Nihat found an opening from the left side of the field. With one solid kick towards the goal, the ball flew past the keeper’s head and landed right in the corner of the net, earning a last-minute victory for the team! The points we earned during this opening series of games kept us alive through the unfortunate loss-filled midseason that followed.
One of the closest of these matches was our second game against Real Madrid in the 21st round of the season. Although the top place team had beaten us earlier in the season, we gave it right back to them in the second game. Real Madrid was fighting for every point, and even though they held a lead for a long time in the game, Rossi and Capdevila kept the game competitive with some well-placed shots in the first and second half of the game. In the last 25 minutes of the game, Real Madrid scored one more time and finished the game with a final score of 3–2. They proved that they deserved to be the No.1 team in the league that year, and we proved that we deserved to be right behind them. After this near win, Villarreal regained their resolve to take on the champions and became a juggernaut, winning game after game on their road to the top.
Although the last game of the season was against Deportivo, the final results of the season were determined in the 36th game of the season against Recreativo de Huelva. At this point in the season, Real Madrid had almost secured a first-place victory, but Barcelona were right on Villarreal’s heels. A loss at this point could have risked the coveted second place position and ended the season with yet another top-two finish for Real Madrid and Barcelona. Speaking of which, at the exact same time that Villarreal was trying to take a victory from Recreativo, el Clásico was happening once again. While being utterly thrashed by Real Madrid in a 4–1 loss, Barcelona looked on in horror as Villarreal defeated Recreativo 2–0, effectively securing their second-place position in the overall standings. Not even two losses could stop the Yellow Submarine from being the runner-up at that point, meaning that our final two wins were just a fun victory lap.
By the end of the season, Villarreal had proven that they were a force to be reckoned with. They broke up el Clásico and showed the world that they can compete with the top dogs of Spain. According to Pellegrini, he always believed that Villarreal could achieve that feat, saying, “When I arrived [at Villarreal] and I said what I expected of the club, nobody would believe it. But when we started working, and the players had the trust to do it, we had a lot of achievements: semi-final of the Champions League, second and third place in Spain. You must do it step by step to keep that mentality.” Manuel Pellegrini set a high bar for the future generations, and we cannot wait to see them surpass it.