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Villarreal, this Spanish “village” semi-finalist of the Champions League

It may be a detail for you, but for them it means a lot. Before facing Bayern Munich in the Champions League on April 6, Villarreal players entered one by one into a bus ready to take them to their La Ceramica stadium. Around them, no police line. Instead, the Spanish club offered young people from its training center the opportunity to form a guard of honor to admire and encourage Unai Emery’s men.

The same device is scheduled for May 3 for the semi-final return against Liverpool. Before that, the Yellow Submarine travels Tuesday for the first leg in the city of the Beatles, whose song Yellow Submarine is the origin of the nickname. “The philosophy of the leaders is to give young people the opportunity to put themselves in the place of the greats in a few years, sums up Robert Pires, who passed through the club between 2006 and 2010. Thus, children realize that it is worth making sacrifices. In reality, Fernando Roig [président en fonctions depuis 1997] already thinking about the future of the club by doing this, you have to make young people want to. »

Read also: Champions League: Villarreal achieves the feat against Bayern Munich, Real is doing well against Chelsea

This educational approach works wonderfully and also stimulates the players of the first team. The proof ? During this evening of April 6, Villarreal defeated the Bavarian ogre in a sold-out stadium (1-0, before ensuring qualification on the return, 1-1), all with places available from 30 euros (and up to 300 for the most expensive). An unbeatable price for the current guns of the Champions League.

But Vila-real, a town of 51,000 inhabitants, has become accustomed to clashing with the giants of European football. Indeed, his club, founded in 1923, only experienced the elite of Spanish football from… 1998. That year, Robert Pires became world champion with the Blues. During the 2005-2006 season, the midfielder discovered the Madrigal (the old stadium) in the semi-finals of the Champions League with Arsenal.

“Before, we had played on the lawn of Real Madrid and Juventus, and we had eliminated themhe recalls. Unconsciously, we had started to fall into the facility. It wasn’t arrogance, but it was just that in Spain Villarreal is nicknamed El Pueblo [“le village”, en français]. Finally, we found ourselves in an atmosphere of madness. »

Excellent in the art of work

From this evening, history retained the final ball at the end of the foot of the idol, Juan Roman Riquelme, and the stop of Jen Lehmann on the penalty shot by the Argentinian. For Pires, this hot flash is fundamental in his decision to leave London to join the south of Spain the following season. “The first thing I did was look at where the club was on the map. I already knew a Vila Real, but it was on the Portuguese border, remembers the native of Reims. Vila-reals, there are many in Spain. »

But a club with two Rs and able to make fun of teams like Inter Milan or Manchester United, there is only one. Pires goes from London and its ten million inhabitants to the – more peaceful – capital of ceramics, on the outskirts of Valencia. He then discovered a team with a South American accent. Even though I arrived with a certain status, I felt that there was no jealousy towards me. This feeling is very important because sometimes you can arrive in a locker room with guys like Juan Roman Riquelme or Diego Forlan and that will create tension. There, it was quite the opposite. At our first training session, I remember taking a tackle from elsewhere by Alessio Tacchinardi. Then he said to me: “Welcome to Villarreal!” »

A first contact which reflects rather well the code of conduct of the collective gathered every Thursday evening at Riquelme to enjoy a delicious asado on a background of Argentinian music with a calabash full of mate to relax. But apart from these barbecue evenings, ” as soon as it was necessary to tread the ground, it was not funny “says Pires.

Since that time, Villarreal have kept that mindset from the campaign. Same president, same sporting director and same organization… The club has changed little. Captain of the Yellow Submarine for two years, Unai Emery has just resumed the path traced by Manuel Pellegrini in 2005-2006. The Basque coach has adopted the same principles: hiding in the shadow of national giants Barça and Real, excelling in the art of hard work and surprising with his formidable technical efficiency when it comes to shining on the continental scene. .

“We are until death”

Thanks to its house virtues, Villarreal digested an unexpected descent into the second division in 2012. Since then, the club has returned to European spheres with a semi-final of the Europa League in 2015-2016 (lost to… Liverpool), then clinched a first trophy by winning this same Europa League in 2021 against Manchester United after a Homeric penalty shootout (1-1, 11-10 on pens). Enough to build the reputation of a tough team.

At home, they are complicated to playanalyzes Pires. Emery plays with a 4-4-2 with three basic men in the middle: Parejo, Capoue and Coquelin. These three hurt Bayern Munich. Lo Celso plays more freely. Villarreal defend well, but the team also attacks quickly and well. She waits, she counter-attacks and she scores to outsmart the opponent. On this point, the best example is the return match against Juventus [3-0]. The plan went perfectly. »

The Reds have been warned. The Yellow Submarine knows how to withstand pressure, even that of Anfield Road, where so many others have sunk. “ There, everyone knows it’s complicated. But when I see how the team is doing defensively, they are able to annoy them,” advances Pires.

The former home had also discussed it with Francis Coquelin, one of the two Frenchmen in the current squad with Etienne Capoue, very upset against a certain German sufficiency before the return match. Francis told me: “We are until death”. » Europe of football is beginning to know it, the Spanish “village” knows how to thwart the demographic logic and does not fear many people.

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