Monday, March 20, 2023

Unai Emery, Villarreal players can hold their heads high after nearly pulling off epic Champions League upset

Villarreal CF briefly wrote themselves into UEFA Champions League history on Tuesday by producing a magnificent 2-0 first half display against Liverpool having trailed by two goals from the first leg. It was the stuff dreams are made of at Estadio de la Ceramica as Etienne Capoue turned provider twice to tee up Boulaye Dia for an early lead and then Francis Coquelin for the crucial leveler.

Given no chance pre-game, Villarreal were the better side for the first half of the second leg after holding Liverpool scoreless for nearly an hour in the first. Considering the financial disparity between the two, this tie should arguably have been over before it began, yet it was not. The home side even made light of leading scorer Arnaut Danjuma’s absence with Dia and half-fit Gerard Moreno up top.

For a short while, at least, Unai Emery and his players looked like they might do the unthinkable and the modest home crowd of under 22,000 were truly witnessing the miracle they had been willing. Ultimately losing to arguably Europe’s best side is nothing to be ashamed of, though — the La Liga outfit can hold their heads up high as they fight to secure a European return between now and the end of the season.

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Emery’s men were like men possessed as they channeled the spirit of Deportivo La Coruna who overcame a first leg 4-1 deficit against AC Milan back in the 2004 quarterfinals as they sought the impossible. First to every ball and with enormous hunger, Villarreal beat Liverpool into retreat and halftime could not come quickly enough for the Reds, who failed to muster a single shot on target.

In fact, it was not until Fabinho struck in the 62nd minute that the hosts’ dream started to fade with Geronimo Rulli once again questionable as the Premier League giants found the net. Luis Diaz equalized on the night just five minutes later and restored Liverpool’s two-goal tie advantage. By then, it was clear that the Spaniards were utterly spent. 

Sadio Mane rubbed salt into open wounds heading into the final quarter-hour when he added a third to wipe out any lingering hope. By that point, ill-discipline had set in and Rulli was particularly guilty with further rash decision-making seeing him rush wildly from his goal to present Mane with the chance to score.

Result aside, this was an evening that will live long in the memories of El Submarino Amarillo fans. It arguably tops their 2006 showing in defeat to Arsenal and instead of lingering on what might have been had Alisson Becker been penalized for the penalty shout on Giovani Lo Celso, Dia and Coquelin’s goals will be talked about for years to come.

Emery should also take heart from his team’s performance. The Basque tactician tasted infamous Champions League capitulation in Barcelona with Paris Saint-Germain in the past and this was nowhere near the same sort of collapse. In fact, it can only be considered a collapse because Villarreal fought back from the brink to make it that.

Instead, less than two years after his arrival at the stadium formerly known as El Madrigal, Emery has given the modest club its first major silverware and an adventure that many “elite” clubs would be envious of as they knocked the likes of Juventus and Bayern Munich out of the competition.

While the Italians pursue a controversial Super League which the Germans have railed against, these plucky Spaniards have reminded us that clubs can still compete despite not possessing the same level of wealth as some of Europe’s leading lights and must be celebrated for that feat.

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