June 2013 and over 10,000 Villarreal fans, the largest away support seen in the city of Barcelona last season, filled three sides of Barça B’s 16,000 capacity mini stadium. A quarter of the entire population of Villarreal had hit the road and almost all were wearing yellow.
They were in a mood to celebrate their immediate return to the Primera Liga after a season in the Segunda. With the sixth biggest playing budget in Spain, Villarreal were the classic too good to go down club - who went down.
Selling their best player Santi Cazorla at the start of the 2011-12 season didn’t help. Nor did a lengthy injury list in late 2011 which took out eight of their first team regulars, including their impressive front two of Nilmar and Rossi, who’d bagged 49 between them the previous season.
They also had what should have been the attraction of Champions League football. It proved to be a distraction. Villarreal had excelled in Europe, but their already stretched team was put in a group with Manchester City, Bayern Munich and Napoli. Villarreal lost all six games with a goal difference of minus 12. Then they were relegated for the first time in 12 years.
Neutrals bemoaned the loss of a side which played great attacking football, the last team to come between the big two in 2008. Foreign correspondents thought there would be no more enjoyable jaunts down the eastern Spanish coast to meet a friendly club where players were happy to chat for ages in garish ceramic-tiled rooms. Fernando Roig, the main promoter of their rise, is a ceramics king.
And their B team players were mightily annoyed to be relegated despite finishing mid-table. They were the only second team playing as high as Spain’s second tier. Barcelona and Real Madrid couldn’t even manage that in 2011, but rules dictate that two teams from the same club can’t play in the same division.
After a shaky start in the Segunda which saw them in 10th at the start of the year, Villarreal’s first team finished strongly and came straight back up. With a playing budget of €30 million (£25.2 million), €24 million (£20.1 million) more than champions Elche, it was no more than was expected.
That budget has been increased to €50 million (£42 million) for this season – the ninth highest in the league, but €40 million (£33.6 million) less than in 2011/12. Villarreal were 750/1 to lift the title in August. Don’t laugh. Given Spain’s duopoly, even Atletico were 100/1. They’re now 10/1.
Villarreal have exceeded expectations and sit fourth, albeit a ridiculous 11 points behind Real Madrid in third after only 13 games, but with almost twice the points of Almeria and Elche, the two other promoted teams, combined. Villarreal have held Real Madrid and, on Sunday, became only the second team to take points off Atletico Madrid this season. They had 66% of the possession against Diego Simeone’s side, though the Argentine prefers goals and points to possession stats.
Villarreal’s stats were still very impressive, with 15 shots to Atletico’s seven. Midfielder and locally born captain Bruno was so outstanding that his coach Marcelino thinks he should be in the Spain team as only Xabi Alonso and Busquets are better. Javi Martinez maybe take issue with that judgement.
Under Marcelino, Villarreal don’t have the big name stars of old after a summer in which club legends moved on: Marcos Senna to New York, Olaf Mellberg to FC Copenhagen and Javi Venta briefly to Brentford. Juanma joined Alaves while Colombian defender Cristian Zapata was the only sale in a €6 million (£5 million) deal to AC Milan, where he played last season.
Yet they still have the backing of Fernando Roig and spent €16 million (£13.4 million) in the close season, more than any club apart from the big two, Atletico and Sevilla. Six million euros went on the prodigious but problematic Giovani dos Santos from Mallorca, €5 million (£4.2 million) on Tomas Pina from the same club.
Those players arrived at a club where Marcelino obsessively monitors his players. He watches their diet and they eat breakfast and lunch together. Body fat levels are down, heart rates and run intensity are continually measured.
Villarreal have a mix of home-grown youth and experience. Midfielders Cani and Bruno are experienced and good enough to play Champions League football, not that they’re expected to stay in fourth.
But who are their challengers? They hammered neighbours Valencia 4-1 last month, they lost at Athletic in fifth and at home to Getafe who are sixth. Results lack consistency, but their style is as pleasing as it was under Manuel Pellegrini.
“All he wanted to do was entertain,” says former striker Diego Forlan. “Pellegrini wanted training to be as enjoyable as matches. Villarreal is a great club, I’m glad they’re doing well and I have much to thank them for.”
Forlan arrived at El Madrigal in August 2004, damaged goods after his spell at Old Trafford. The Yellow Submarines had specialised in catching still young falling stars; Joan Roman Riquelme was another. Both went on to sparkle in a side which reached the Champions League semi-finals. Forlan wasn’t complaining about life on or off the pitch. He had received a pay rise from Old Trafford and a house by the beach. No Villarreal players actually live in Villarreal, a forgettable town which wouldn’t be known if it wasn’t for their football team. That team is now excelling, seemingly stronger than ever after their relegation setback.