Villarreal have eliminated Bayern Munich from the Champions League and reminded us that European club football does still have a beating heart.
As often happens in the aftermath of a surprise result, the benefit of hindsight offers a little clarity as to how it came about in the first place. Bayern Munich needed a late goal to draw the first leg of their round of 16 match against RB Salzburg, and although they have looked as imperious as ever as they continue to saunter towards their 10th consecutive Bundesliga title – they’re currently nine points ahead of second-placed Borussia Dortmund and 17 clear of third-placed Bayer Leverkusen – their season has been dotted with moments of carelessness, such as their 4-2 defeat to VfL Bochum in February.
When Robert Lewandowski opened the scoring six minutes into the second half against Villarreal, it did feel somewhat as though a dam that had been creaking was about to burst open. This, after all, was the Bayern Munich team which coasted through its group stage with six successive wins – one of only three group winners to achieve this, alongside Liverpool and Ajax. They have already scored 86 goals in just 29 league games this season, an average of almost exactly three per game.
But on this occasion, the dam may have strained as Villarreal continued to sit back, but it didn’t burst. And then, with two minutes left, Giovani Lo Celso broke and fed the ball to Gerard Moreno, who passed sumptuously across a stretched Bayern back line for Samuel Chukwueze to sweep the ball in from close range and knock them out of the Champions League. Rumours of the death of La Liga may have been somewhat overstated.
Representing a town with a population which could comfortably fit inside the Allianz Arena in Munich, and with a team dotted with names that are half-familiar from Premier League seasons gone by – those wondering about whatever happened to Etienne Capoue, Francis Coquelin and Juan Foyth, for example, may wonder no more – it might be tempting to patronise Villarreal as savants who have somehow been propelled to the latter of the stages of the Champions League in much the same way as Forrest Gump found himself repeatedly an eye-witness to the great news stories of the 20th century.
But the truth is even more eye-catching. Villarreal only finished 7th in La Liga last season, but qualified for this tournament by beating Manchester United 11-10 on penalties win last year’s Europa League. Along with two Intertoto Cups, won back-to-back at the start of this century, it is the only major piece of silverware they’ve ever won. But beating Bayern Munich keeps them on course for a tantalising possibility: should they somehow win the Champions League, they’ll have lifted both of Europe’s two main competitions before having won even their own domestic league or cup.
The architect of this success is another highly-qualified individual who was chewed up and spat out by the Premier League. Unai Emery’s year and a half at Arsenal wasn’t an especially happy time for anyone concerned. His only full season saw his team fall away from the Champions League places in a manner which would look somewhat familiar to those watching their current attempts. But this was something of a blip in a career which otherwise saw him win the Europa League three times with Sevilla and reach the semi-finals with Valencia, as well as winning Ligue Un at Paris Saint-Germain.
Emery almost returned to England earlier this season when he was courted at some length by Newcastle United, whose new owners were looking for a little managerial gloss to follow the inertia of the Steve Bruce years. Emery has since confirmed that it was gratitude to Villarreal and finishing this season’s Champions League run which were the most powerful reasons for him not accepting that position, although it should also be added that the amount of noise surrounding the possibility of him becoming the first manager under the club’s new Saudi ownership didn’t help.
And this campaign hasn’t always been an easy one for Emery. Villarreal started extremely weakly, winning just three of their first 16 league games, which left them in 13th place as recently as December. Their form has picked up since, but it remains the case that the only chance they’ll have of playing in next year’s Champions League will come about by winning the competition this season; they’re now 7th and 11 points from fourth-placed Sevilla. In the Champions League, meanwhile, they eliminated Atalanta in the group stages to qualify behind Manchester United, and then caused the surprise of the round of 16 in beating Juventus 3-0 in Turin in the second leg of their tie to complete a 4-1 aggregate win.
Bayern Munich have been excluded from any conversations about a European Super League (the 50+1 rule ownership rule in German football made it highly unlikely that German clubs would have voted to join it), but they do remain one of Europe’s biggest sides. Their elimination from the Champions League by a club who may be waiting a long time for an invitation to join that cursed ‘competition’ from Real Madrid or Barcelona provides some welcome light relief in yet another season which has been dominated by discussion of the inequalities of European club football and the further contortion of the game to suit the best interests of the already wealthiest clubs.
Villarreal’s Europa League win last season and their run in the Champions League this time around isn’t the sort of historical coefficient that UEFA would have been hoping for from their ill-advised Champions League reforms. And with a semi-final draw against Liverpool having already been made, they now face a test even more daunting than those posed by Juventus and Bayern Munich. Liverpool’s experience may well prove to be too much for Villarreal. But in a season which hints that the future of European club football will have a dystopian air to it, the journey they’ve already made proves that it does still have a beating heart.
The post Villarreal provide the perfect antidote to superclub excesses appeared first on Football365.