Yellow Submarine gets that sinking feeling
Not all that long ago, few of us would have given even the slightest thought to Villarreal. The team from a fairly soulless part of the Mediterranean coast, just north of Valencia, have spent most of their less than remarkable history languishing in the Spanish regional leagues.
These days, Villarreal are a force to be reckoned with on the European stage, as well as in the Primera. The boffins at the International Federation of Football Historians and Statisticians (IFFHS) have them ranked as the top Spanish team of the calendar year 2005.
Tickets have already gone on sale to club members for their forthcoming Champions League first knockout round meeting with the defending Scottish champions Rangers. The trim Madrigal Stadium will be packed to its 22,000 capacity on March 7.
Yet whereas last month following the Round of Sixteen draw, confidence was sky high amongst the locals that Rangers could be dispatched with ease, seeds of doubt are beginning to be sown in supporters' minds - and not without good reason.
On Sunday, I watched Villarreal limp to a listless 1-0 defeat in Santander against Racing. Fair enough, everyone is entitled to an off day. The trouble is, Villarreal have had too many such days in the early part of this new year.
Since coming back from the short festive break, Manuel Pellegrini's team have played like over-zealous party animals nursing a semi-permanent hangover.
Four games in all competitions have passed in 2006 without a single goal having been scored. While it's accurate to say Villarreal's rise up the ranks in recent seasons has had much to do with solidity at the back, rarely has their opportunism in front of goal come into question. Until now, that is.
Making Sunday's defeat at El Sardinero all the more astonishing were the circumstances: they were playing against nine men for most of the second half. Villarreal had a player of their own, substitute Hector Font, sent off on sixty-one minutes. At no time, while enjoying numerical superiority though, did they look likely to erase the 1-0 deficit.
Had Juan Riquelme converted from the spot right on the stroke of the interval, it could well have been a different story. Riquelme, the team's catalyst, was unusually anonymous and ineffective against a group of Racing players who harried as though their lives depended on it.
The fact is, the 'yellow submarine' have now been torpedoed out of the top four, thanks to Real Madrid's late night win against Sevilla. There are well-grounded fears that Villarreal's current Champions League sojourn might just be a one season wonder.
The big conundrum, as far as Villareal fans are concerned, is Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan. How has the former Manchester United man managed to go from feared finisher to just another player?
The statistics don't lie in this case. Last season, Forlan walked away with the pichichi, as top Primera scorer with a grand total of twenty five. This term, he has found the net a meagre four times in fourteen league outings.
Part of the problem it seems to me, is the area in which he's operating. Forlan frequently drops deep into midfield nowadays to collect the ball. It's as if he believes himself to be a second playmaker. Coupled with that problem, is a tendency to stage his own private passing match with Riquelme.
Villarreal, in their modern incarnation, have always been at their best with a more pronounced structure. Riquelme used to be the only exception to this rule.
Four dogged defenders were always protected by two dependable minders in the robust Marcos Senna and the very able Josico. On his own up front would be Forlan, with Jose Mari and Juan Pablo Sorin on the flanks. That would leave Riquelme to choreograph and prompt as he saw fit.
That this system has evolved into something less easily defined and consequently far less useful was evident on Sunday afternoon. Villarreal were too ponderous in attempting to break Racing down, and we even had the bizarre sight of a solitary Jose Mari with two or three opposition defenders around him. Against nine men, that's simply not on.
The reverse in Santander was only the fourth Primera defeat suffered by Villarreal this term, and their first away defeat since the opening weekend of the season.
However, the trend is undeniable. The sense of feel good enveloping the club on the heels of a group victory in the Champions League has been well and truly undermined by this January malaise.
Rangers were doubtless watching this past weekend. Villarreal have discernable weaknesses that can certainly be exploited when the two teams lock horns at Ibrox on February 22.