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Apr 24, 2013

Tense climax ahead for Villarreal

As you drive south on the Costa Azahar, away from the well-to-do beach condos of Benicassim, the road winds through a landscape of factories and industrial estates on the route inland, past Castellon. This is the backdrop that made, and has since threatened to break, Villarreal CF.

Vila-real (the town's name reverted to the Valencian spelling in 2006), with its 50,000 population, is an unlikely home to a club competing in the Champions League - and at the moment it isn't, with the Yellow Submarine battling for an instant return to La Liga following relegation.

Expectation locally, nationally and internationally has grown exponentially in the time since Fernando Roig took control, just over 15 years ago. The tile magnate transformed the face of the club, spending upwards of £25 million on the club's facilities, infrastructure and playing staff. The environment is, however, a challenging one. Villarreal have struggled to fill El Madrigal, a modest (if very tidy) 22,000-capacity stadium. This is a club that didn't have their first set of floodlights until 1973.

They have popped up in Champions League trivia of late, with Manuel Pellegrini becoming the first coach to take two competition debutants to the last eight after guiding Malaga through (although Brian Clough achieved the same feat in the old European Cup). Villarreal went that little bit further than Malaga back in 2006, with only Jens Lehmann's late penalty save from Juan Roman Riquelme preventing an extra-time duel with Arsenal at El Madrigal for a place in the Paris final.

Reminders of past glories at the stadium are plentiful. In Bar Madrigal, behind the south end of the stadium, split scarves commemorate not just the Arsenal semi-final but clashes with Manchester United, Internazionale and Porto. On the ground's main entrance in Calle Blasco Ibanez, one of the turnstiles has been christened Puerta Marcos Senna in tribute to the club's most celebrated player.

This, in a way, sums up Villarreal's current status. The cherished high points are not that far in the past at all. Senna was on the bench for Sunday's home game with Racing Santander, having returned from injury, alongside another name identified with those European forays, veteran full-back Javi Venta. Even the nightmare of last season had begun with a sense of anticipation, after being drawn in a Champions League group with Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Napoli.

There were many factors behind the collapse - the heavy losses suffered by Roig as the tile industry took a hammering were hard to bear, with the sale of Santi Cazorla to Malaga in summer 2011 indicative of a power shift in La Liga's second strata. Serious injury to star forward Giuseppe Rossi was also a huge blow.

Still, Pellegrini's ghost is the one that looms largest over the club. It's easy to argue that they've never really recovered from his 2009 exit to Real Madrid. Just as he has been at Malaga, the iconic Chilean was more than a coach here. Pellegrini was a project manager, to paraphrase one of his own descriptions of his time at Villarreal - not quite to an Arsene Wenger extent, but he understood his environment and the direction he was charged with taking the club, rather than just the team. Neither Ernesto Valverde - now firefighting down the road at Valencia - or Juan Carlos Garrido were able fill the gap effectively.

The current incumbent, Marcelino, may not quite have Pellegrini status, but he is a good leader for the here and now. The 47-year-old has been here before, with Real Zaragoza, and the challenge has reinvigorated him. His animated figure on the touchline bears absolutely no relation to the apologetic figure who gradually faded from view in his last job, at Sevilla.

Villarreal need someone with knowhow - they went into the match with Racing in fifth position, in the play-off zone but with work to do to snatch the second automatic promotion place. Marcelino was adamant before Sunday's game that the squad's current injury crisis would not be used as an excuse, even if he confessed preparing for Racing's visit had been "the hardest week of the season".

Marcelino knew Racing - battling a second successive relegation after a terrible start to the campaign - would be tough to break, and he was right. Despite the quality latent in the ranks, it's not too hard to see why Villarreal have drawn too many games this season.

At its best, the approach work is as pleasing on the eye as it has ever been, with captain Bruno (a candidate to fill Barcelona's defensive midfield role not so long ago), Cani and Joan Oriol moving the ball with real fluency. If Racing coach Alejandro Menendez's post-match claim that "Marcelino has the best quality team in the Segunda" was easy to appreciate, there was a lack of cutting edge.

Ikechukwu Uche is a game battler but way short of Rossi's class. Gerard Moreno, one of a clutch of youngsters being guided by the more experienced elements of the squad, has a pleasing left-footed poise not entirely dissimilar to the Italy international. He could have done with better luck than the poor offside decision that robbed him a first-half goal that was a good few yards onside, with referee Melero Lopez meeting a cacophony of whistles from a noisy and passionate 18,000 crowd as the teams left the field for the interval.

One of the other up-and-comers, Moi Gomez, hit the decisive goal with a neat finish at the dawn of the second period after good work by Uche, but Villarreal could have been undone had former Manchester City man Gai Assulin - an impressive substitute here - not dragged a golden chance wide for Racing deep into stoppage time.

Instead, it was sighs of relief all round. "We played knowing all the other results," Marcelino said after the game, "which were pretty much all against us. We had so many injuries and were obliged to win. We're conscious of the situation we're in. We don't have Riquelme or Forlan on the pitch."

Villarreal do, however, have their fate in their own hands, with a series of matches against their direct rivals to come in the season's final stanza. They now sit in fourth place, two points outside the automatic promotion places. One season in the Segunda has been enough of a reality check, thanks very much.

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