VILLARREAL // A decade ago, Villarreal played in a regional league with an average attendance of just 150. Over the next week, the club from a dusty town of only 42,000 between Barcelona and Valencia on Spain's Mediterranean coast will be the focus of much attention.
The European champions Spain will play Chile in a friendly at Villarreal's 24,000 capacity El Madrigal home tonight. Six days later, Villarreal will host Manchester United in the Champions League. The rise and rise of Villarreal is down to the club president Fernando Roig, who has invested his ceramics fortune into football. The club's policy of catching youthful yet still fading stars like Diego Forlan or Joan Riquelme helped propel them into a major Spanish power - they finished second in the league last season, 10 points ahead of Barca.
"Villarreal's a great place to play," says Forlan, now with Atletico Madrid. "There's no pressure, you can live by the sea and everything is about the football." Spain's players arrived at Villarreal on Monday to find a training ground to rival those at Barcelona or Real Madrid, even if every surface, aside from the grass, is finished in garish marble from Roig's company. Among the squad are several Villarreal players, including Marcos Senna, Joan Capdevila and Santiago Cazorla. All were key members in Euro 2008 as Spain finally fulfilled their potential after decades of underperforming.
Outspoken and ageing coach Luis Aragones has moved to Fenerbahce, but Spain remain unbeaten in 27 games, top the Fifa world rankings and are favourites to win the 2010 World Cup in South Africa having won all four of their qualifying games so far. They have also never lost in six previous matches to Chile, who are ranked 35 in the world and beat Argentina in a World Cup qualifier last month. In another local twist, Chile feature Villarreal midfielder Matias Fernandez.
Spain's new coach Vicente del Bosque, who managed Real Madrid to European Cup success in 2000 and 2002, has several injuries to contend with. Euro 2008 players David Silva and Andres Iniesta are long-term absentees so Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas may start in place of Iniesta. Athletic Bilbao striker Joseba Llorente and Valencia's 20-year-old forward Juan Manuel Mata have been surprise call ups and with Liverpool's Fernando Torres and Fenerbahce's Daniel Guiza returning from injury, Del Bosque needs firepower and knows Mata's partnership with David Villa at club level works.
"It was a big surprise for me to be called up and I'm very emotional," said the 23-year-old Basque striker, who scored against Osasuna on Sunday. Another who may get a chance to play because of injuries to defenders Carlos Puyol and Juanito is Valencia's Raul Albiol. After the game, the unflappable Del Bosque will fly to Johannesburg for the 2009 Confederations Cup draw. Not that Villarreal, which boasts just eight taxis, has an airport.