Villarreal CF
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Villarreal CF

Going the distance: The story of Villarreal’s legendary run in the 2005/06 UEFA Champions League

25th April 2006. Stadium lights beat down on two figures standing on the El Madrigal pitch. One is Juan Ramón Riquelme, midfielder for Villarreal CF, and the other is Jens Lehmann, goalkeeper for England’s Arsenal, and if you’ve been a fan of Villarreal CF for any period of time, you already know how this story ends, but I’m going to tell it anyway. Why? Because it demands to be told.

The score is 0–0 on the night of the second leg of the semifinal match of the UEFA Champions League. The Gunners are winning by a goal the aggregate. The winner of this game will go on to face Barcelona in the finals for a chance to win the most coveted trophy in all of Europe. After being awarded a penalty kick in the final minute of the game, Riquelme picks up the ball. He closes his eyes, kisses it for luck, and sets it on the grass. Time stops. The deafening cheers of the thousands of screaming fans goes silent. Riquelme and Lehmann lock eyes, and for a brief moment, they are the only two people in the world, the only two people that matter. Riquelme takes a step back and then runs towards the ball…

How did we get to this point? How did a team from a small town that was only known for making ceramics face the world-renowned champions from across the channel? It starts, as it always does, with an inspiring success at the local level. In the previous season, 2004/05, the Yellow Submarine finished third in La Liga, the best performance in the team’s history thanks to the amazing leadership of Manuel Pellegrini, which earned them a spot in the Qualifying Round of the Champions League. The matches that followed set the stage for Villarreal’s grand entrance in the League. In their first ever qualifying round of a Champions League, Villarreal defeated fellow newcomers Everton for a chance to compete in the group stages.

Of course, Villarreal CF did not stay underdogs for very long in the group stages. They held their own in their first matchup against Manchester United, and kept that momentum going throughout the entire group, remaining undefeated and finishing first in their group thanks to some stellar goals from Riquelme, Antonio Guayre, and Marcos Senna.

The knockout stage that followed was a series of nail-biters as our boys in yellow climbed their way up the international rankings. The first leg against the Rangers immediately ratcheted the tension up as high as it would go after Juan Manuel Peña accidentally scored an own goal. Riquelme had effortlessly scored an early penalty kick, which meant that the error on Peña’s part led to a draw. The second leg was just as stressful. Villarreal spent the first half of the game behind by a single goal. Without another goal, Villarreal would lose the game and be knocked out. Within five minutes of half-time, Rodolfo Arruabarrena took possession of the ball and scored! When all the dust and grass settled at the end of the match, the score was 1–1 in the game and 3–3 on aggregate, seeing Villarreal head throw on away goals.

After just scraping through the previous round, Villarreal faced one of their most fearsome competitors in the quarterfinals, one of the titans of the top flight of Italy: Inter Milan. Officially known as Internazionale, Inter Milan is the only Italian team to never be relegated to the second division in its national league and one of the most successful teams in Serie A, having won 13 titles before that year’s Champions League and being on track to win the championship again that very year (thanks to the help of Juventus and AC Milan who would unwittingly give the title to Inter Milan after being caught rigging the games during the Calciopoli scandal).

Without a doubt, a number of neutral fans saw this as the end of Villarreal’s journey. The team had done well, but Everton and the Rangers were small-timers compared to the Italian champions at Inter Milan. Villarreal had a good run, they had done better than most, but Inter was an internationally recognised team. For many of the football fans who tuned in to watch the game on that cold March evening, they didn’t come to watch an actual match; they came to watch a slaughter. And then, something unexplainable happened. In the first minute of the first leg, Diego Forlán wove through the Italian defenders, effortlessly driving the ball into the net before anyone had a chance to process what was happening. The Italian stadium was silent. Villarreal had scored the first goal, and with it, they sent an important message to the Internazionale: if you want this win, you’ll have to fight for it. And fight they did. Inter Milan won that match 2–1, but the statement was still made, and Villarreal had their chance for revenge less than a week later. Despite their strong showing in the first game, the Italian teams could not get a single goal against the Yellow Submarine, and with a well-placed shot from Arruabarrena, Villarreal won the second game! Once again, there was a tie in the aggregate, but thanks to Forlán’s incredible opening goal in the first leg, Villarreal again won on away goals. With the Italian giants defeated in a nail-biting upset, Villarreal CF moved on to the semi-finals.

For the first time in the team’s history, a European title was within reach. Only one team stood in the way of the Yellow Submarine and the Finals: Arsenal. The Gunners had an absolutely dominating performance in the tournament up until this point. After finishing first in their group with five wins and no loses, Arsenal went on to beat Real Madrid and Juventus (historically, the most successful teams in their respective leagues) without giving up a single goal. Arsenal was a juggernaut barreling through the Champions League towards the Finals. For Villarreal to win would be the biggest upset in the tournament.

When the players entered Arsenal Stadium in Highbury on 19th April, they knew the stakes of the game they were about to play. The first leg of the semi-finals would set the tone for the next game, and any advantage that Villarreal could take from the opening game would be a huge boon for them in next one. Villarreal had won the previous two games based on away goals, so Arsenal knew the importance of keeping Villarreal’s strikers away from the net as much as possible. Keeping that strategy in mind, Arsenal kept the ball in Villarreal’s half for most of the game. The defenders kept them at bay for as long as they could until the 41st minute of the match, when Aleksander Hleb, midfielder for the Gunners, snuck past all of the defenders and ran the ball down the right side of the field. Without having any way to get the ball into the net, Hleb kicked the ball to the center, where his only nearby teammate, Kolo Touré, was surrounded by five Villarreal defenders. As the ball rolled in front of him, just barely out of the reach of him and any of the defenders, Touré made a snap decision to slide on one knee towards the ball, kicking it with the tip of his cleat. The pack of defenders dove for the ball, some of them tripping over Touré’s outstretched foot, but it was too late. Touré had scored the first, and only, goal of the game.

Of course, Villarreal didn’t just give up at that point. With the threat of a tied game over, Arsenal relaxed their guard and gave the Yellow Submarine several attempts on goal, but that was when the team ran into their biggest challenge in the Champions League: the indomitable iron curtain named Jens Lehmann. Lehmann was the reason that no one had been able to score a point against Arsenal for the entire Knockout Stage. The German goalkeeper’s ability to know exactly where to dive to protect the net from every incoming shot was unparalleled, and none of the other teams up until that point had figured out a way to get past him. For the rest of the game, no matter how many shots Riquelme and Senna made against him, Lehmann always found a way to block every single one. When the first leg ended with a final score of 1–0, Villarreal’s goal became clear. They needed to find a way to get past Lehmann.

Which finally leads us back to that fateful night. 25 April , 2006. Lights beating down overhead. El Madrigal full of cheering fans. One final hope for Villarreal, a small team for a small town, to compete against the top teams in the world and raise an international trophy high for the all the people in Castellón who dream of something bigger.

The tension was palpable in the stadium as fans were abuzz with drums, vuvuzelas, whistles, and clackers. The stadium came alive to celebrate the most important game to grace the town of Vila-Real, the smallest town to host a semi-final match of the UEFA Champions League.

Villarreal needed two goals to win and one goal to stay alive. With no away goals in the previous match, Villarreal had no chance to slip through in the aggregate like they had with their previous two wins, and a single well-placed shot from Arsenal could put them three points behind instead of one. Villarreal had to play perfectly and aggressively. A BBC writer described the aggression of Villarreal in this game like this, “Arsenal survived a siege.” Villarreal kept the pressure on Lehmann for as long as they could, constantly shooting goals that either barely skid past the goal posts or were blocked by the outstretched hand of Lehmann. The siege was powerful and kept Arsenal on edge, but the iron curtain was not falling. Guillermo Franco and Riquelme attacked the goal with well-timed headers and long shots, but Lehmann was as sharp as ever, not letting the ball past until one incredible play from Franco. After a short pass from defender Juan Pablo Sorín, Franco scooped up the ball with his right foot and launched it right over Lehmann’s head into the corner of the net. The crowd went wild. Submarine fans were cheering and crying with joy… until the referee raised his right hand and declared that the goal was illegal. Sorín’s pass had caught Franco just barely past Arsenal’s defenders and was therefore offsides. The score was back to 0–0 with only twenty minutes left in the game.

Hope seemed lost until Gaël Clichy drove his shoulder into the back of the newly substituted José Mari in the last two minutes of the game. The referee deemed the move a foul and gave Villarreal a penalty kick, one last ditch effort to score a goal and stay alive before the end of the game. Just Riquelme and Lehmann, facing off against each other. One on one. A penalty kick, just like the one that helped Villarreal beat the Rangers. Just like the ones Riquleme had shot hundreds of times before. The only difference was Lehmann.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been a fan of Villarreal CF for any period of time, you know how this story ends. Time froze. The two player locked eyes. Riquelme took a step back and ran towards the ball… and Lehmann dove to his left, slapping the ball away. With that, the game was over, the score was 0–0, Arsenal had won the aggregate, and Villarreal had lost their best shot at winning the Champions League.

Riquelme received a lot of hate for missing that penalty kick. Many fans and coaches considered him to be a difficult player to work with, and the criticism for his missed goal made everything worse. Afterwards, he complained, “I didn’t kill anyone. All I did was miss a penalty,” a statement that has been interpreted as petty and uncaring by some but frustrated and full of self-loathing by others. To his credit, the coach, Pellegrini, never blamed Riquelme for the loss and even said, “It is not important. We should all think it is very difficult to be in that position and how he was feeling at the moment. It is a responsibility that big players have to take and he took it.” Of the loss as a whole, he said, “We were even better than Arsenal at Highbury. We deserve to be in the final. I thought from the first minute we could make it. We had three shots in the first half, two headers in the second and then the penalty. Until the last minute I thought it was possible.”

The fans of Villarreal thought it was possible too. They didn’t give up hope until the game was over, and with the way the team was playing, they had plenty of reason to believe in them. Villarreal went further in the competition than anyone expected them too. Why should we tell this story over and over again? Because, even though the ending is disappointing, it’s also inspiring. It’s inspiring that the team could go the distance with world champions and make them doubt until the last minute of the game that they can win. Think about that. Fans of Arsenal stared down at two players facing off in a last-minute penalty kick and sincerely thought, “We could lose.” That’s what is so impressive. The fact that Villarreal challenged Arsenal for so long and forced them to play their hardest just to win, to fight tooth and nail against Villarreal the same way they had fought against the best teams in Spain and Italy shows the heart and talent of our players. The story of the 2006 Champions League semi-finals is not the story of how Villarreal beat one of the best teams in the world; it’s the story of how we held our own against a giant while the world looked on in awe and wondered if the giant would survive. That’s why we tell this story. That’s what it means to go the distance.



Official Villarreal CF Medium publication. A unique, authentic insight into the world of the Yellow Submarine.

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