La Liga has historically been ruled by Real Madrid and Barcelona, with a variety of challengers to the two dominant poles. Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, Real Sociedad, Super Depor, Sevilla, Villarreal, Málaga… the challengers come and go while Spain’s big two remain.
Villarreal might have been the least likely in the series of challengers to the La Liga duopoly. Nicknamed el submarino amarillo for the yellow shirts the players wear on the pitch, the club hails from a small town in the province of Castellón, from which it derives its name: Villarreal, or Vila-real in the local Valencian dialect. Vila-real has a population of just around 51,000, but the supporters have no problem filling their club’s stadium, the 25,000 seat El Madrigal.
The yellow submarine has its history, but not much of it in the top flight. Founded in 1923, Villarreal only made their Primera division debut in 1998. The club’s fortunes began to improve with the appointment of Manuel Pellegrini as coach in the summer of 2004. In his first season in charge, the Chilean manager guided Villarreal to a third place finish in the league, earning a Champions League berth.
With Pellegrini at the helm, Villarreal became mainstays in Europe, reaching the Champions League semi finals in 2006, and earned their best ever La Liga finish in 2008, coming second to champions Real Madrid. Pellegrini left for the managerial seat at the Santiago Bernabéu in the summer of 2009, and a number of coaches attempted to fill his shoes over the next few seasons, but the club continued to finish in the top half of the table.
The submarine returned to the Champions League after the 2010/2011 campaign, finishing 4th in La Liga. Despite losing playmaker Santi Cazorla to big spenders Málaga that summer, Villarreal still appeared to have a strong team, with players like Giuseppe Rossi, Cani, Borja Valero, Cristián Zapata, and Bruno Soriano part of the squad. So when they were drawn into the Champions League ‘Group of Death’ that fall, along with Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Napoli, they might not have been favorites to progress, but they were expected by many to contend.
Contend they did not, however. Villarreal failed to earn even a single point in the group, an auspicious start to what would be a nightmare season. The club fared little better in La Liga, losing star striker Giuseppe Rossi to an ACL injury in a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid that October. Villarreal slid down the table and eventually finished in 18th place, which caused the submarine to sink to the depths of the Liga Adelante, Spain’s second division.
Tragedy struck shortly after relegation became official. Villarreal chose Manolo Preciado as the man to raise up the sinking club, but the Santander-born manager suffered a fatal heart attack just a day later. He was rather hastily replaced by Julio Velázquez, but his death sent shockwaves through Spanish football, and it was tough for any manager to step in after the unfortunate event.
That summer also saw the departures of Valero, Nilmar, Diego López, Jonathan de Guzmán, and Jefferson Montero, among others. Rossi was still sidelined by further complications to his knee injury, and would later depart for Fiorentina in the January window.
It is the defining characteristic of a submarine, however, to plunge down deep and resurface once again, and Villarreal did just that. Although many important players had moved on, others like Cani, Bruno, Manuel Trigueros, and club icon Marcos Senna remained to fight for promotion back to the first division. At the club, there was an optimistic feeling that the drop to Segunda would be short-lived.
It wasn’t exactly clear waters from the outset though, and a rough start in the Liga Adelante saw Velázquez get the axe on January 15th, with the club floundering in 7th place. His replacement was Marcelino, who had incidentally coached his last game before the assignment with Sevilla in a loss to Villarreal. Squad reinforcements Jonathan Pereira, Jérémy Perbet, and Javier Aquino also arrived in the January transfer window. The new additions began to right the ship, and Villarreal finished the season in second place, earning automatic promotion. Marcos Senna, who gave his all for the yellow shirt over the past decade, departed for the newly formed New York Cosmos this summer after helping give one last gift to the fans who fill El Madrigal: a return to the highest level of competition in Spain.
Back in the top flight, club president Fernando Roig made funds available in the summer window to compensate for Senna’s exit and improve the squad. On loan players Pereira and Perbet were given permanent contracts, Sergio Asenjo was brought in at goalkeeper, and defensive reinforcements arrived in the forms of Gabriel Paulista and Bojan Jokić. The marquee signing of the window, however, was Mexican international Giovani dos Santos, who had also attracted interest from Valencia and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
With such big moves, the yellow submarine certainly wasn’t a relegation candidate at the beginning of the season, but few could have predicted this fantastic start. Villarreal currently sit in fourth place in the league table, behind fellow unbeatens Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. What’s more, they have done it in entertaining fashion, scoring at least 2 goals in each Liga game, save a 0-0 draw with Celta Vigo. Gio dos Santos looks as if he’s finally found a place to shine with 3 goals and 2 assists in 6 games.
The match of the season so far was surely against Real Madrid at the Madrigal, which ended in a 2-2 stalemate but could have easily gone to the home side if not for some heroic saves by Madrid keeper Diego López, one of those sold off by Villarreal after the relegation a year ago. The yellow submarine delighted the crowd with fast, attacking play that cut open the Madrid defense time and again.
Given the current state of La Liga, Villarreal’s chances look as good as any team’s to grab that fourth and final Champions League place. It’s a long season, but Marcelino has them playing with style, and the have displayed a consistent attacking threat. After earning 14 of a possible 18 points so far, it doesn’t seem as if the submarine will be returning to the depths of Spanish football anytime soon.