An unlikely success story
In a recent column I suggested that Arsenal might just be emerging as this season's answer to Liverpool, at least in Champions League terms. Based on that assertion, it might sound a bit contradictory, not to mention churlish, if this week's space is used to sound a note of caution.
However, that's exactly what I'm about to do. Some might think Arsenal's name is already engraved on the trophy, but nothing has been won yet.
It's natural for Arsenal fans to believe that Villarreal must surely be inferior to Real Madrid and Juventus, the teams they have already knocked out since the Champions League returned from its winter break.
I've heard all the supposed negatives about Villarreal. 'They're a tiny club from a nondescript Mediterranean town with a silly nickname. They can't score and can only win two-legged ties on the away goals rule. Oh, and they have that awful Diego Forlan leading the attack. A complete waste of space at Manchester United he was.'
If I exaggerate the stereotypes being trotted out, it's not by much.
Let me spell out the true facts concerning the 'yellow submarine.' In only their third season participating in continental competition, Villarreal have reached their second European semi-final. Two years ago, it was the last four in the UEFA Cup, now it's a similar story in the more prestigious Champions League.
They've suffered just one defeat in their last twenty three matches in Europe, going back to the beginning of last term.
Villarreal also have a particular penchant for eliminating British teams. In the 2003-2004 UEFA Cup, Celtic were disposed of at the quarter-final stage. This season, they've beaten Everton, at home and away just to qualify for the Champions League group stage. Once there, they topped their section while Manchester United finished bottom. Then, in the first knockout round, they did enough to send Rangers packing, on away goals.
Mind you, despite their magnificent record against Premiership and SPL sides, Villarreal will doubtless go into their semi-final meetings with Arsenal as underdogs. I can't imagine they would want it any other way.
While Arsenal might still resemble the 2006 version of Liverpool, Villarreal remind me a little bit of the FC Porto side we saw outlast the other pretenders to the crown in the race for Champions League victory in 2004. Remember Jose Mourinho's team that beat Monaco in that Gelsenkirchen final? The sheer obduracy of Manuel Pellegrini's team makes the comparison irresistible
For Deco, read Juan Roman Riquelme. Fair enough, their styles and aptitudes are slightly different, but the common thread is that both are artists who demand the freedom to express themselves.
Mourinho gave Costinha and Maniche the responsibility of covering up for Deco's defensive limitations. Villarreal coach favours a similar midfield strategy to allow Riquelme to play to his strengths. Marcos Senna sits deep and controls play from there, while Josico, Alessio Tacchinardi and rising star Cesar Arzo are all well capable of filling the other combative central midfield position.
Riquelme is truly a wonderful passer in the mould of the great Argentinean playmakers of the Sixties and Seventies. A lack of pace hampered his career at Barcelona, but Villarreal have other players possessing that quality.
Anticipating what Riquelme will do is a constant challenge for the player picking him up. One minute he drops deep, the next he's in the opposition box. His touch on the ball is masterful, and when it comes to free-kicks, deception is Riquelme's middle name.
Like most players of his ilk though, Riquelme is prone to off-nights and when he's below par, frequently becomes completely invisible.
Forlan, who suffered two wretchedly unsuccessful seasons with Manchester United, is a different player when wearing the yellow shirt of Villarreal. Granted, the Uruguayan has had more scoring problems this term than he did last season, when no less a figure than Samuel Eto'o was pipped at the post in the race for the Pichichi. However, he has netted in the two knockout round ties so far, against Rangers and Inter.
One problem area for Villarreal might be in goal. Forlan's compatriot Sebastian Viera picked up a daft yellow card (his third of the competition) near the end of the second leg the other night, meaning that the young Argentinean Mariano Barbosa will take part in only his third Champions League game. Arsenal will do well to test him as early as possible at Highbury.
Villarreal's story is one of unlikely success. When Fernando Roig became president in 1997 they were languishing in the lower reaches of the Spanish Second Division. Now, they stand in a place Real Madrid would given anything to occupy, as Champions League semi-finalists at the first time of asking.
They might not reside in a yellow submarine, but Villarreal certainly live and die as a collective unit. This is no place for inflated egos.
Despite everything that I've outlined here and what others will write in the build-up to the semi-final, Arsenal will still likely be viewed as the better of the two sides.
Can they succeed where Celtic, Everton, Manchester United and Rangers have failed? A mere bagatelle, this won't be.