BARCELONA // Villarreal have played in Champions League semi-finals. They finished 10 points clear of Barcelona in the Primera Liga in 2008 and have boasted world class players. They have never, however, topped the league, not even for a single week.
On Monday night, the Yellow Submarines had a chance to change that. Following an opening-day league defeat at Real Sociedad, Villarreal won their next five matches to surge up the table. Defeat promoted Hercules and they went top for the first time in their short, but notable, top-flight history.
Except Villarreal fluffed their lines and drew 2-2 to remain in a three way tie for second. The 17,000 regulars at El Madrigal were not be too disheartened. This time last year they were bottom of the league with a meagre two draws from seven matches. Unbalanced by the loss of long-time coach Manuel Pellegrini to Real Madrid, wealthy president and benefactor Fernando Roig hoped that the appointment of the previously successful Ernesto Valverde would make for a seamless transition.
It did not work and they dismissed Valverde after just 20 matches. This was not what was expected of a team who had not finished outside the top eight in the previous six seasons, with two top-three finishes and Champions League football.
Villarreal may have been perceived as a small-town club - an accurate assessment given the surrounding population is just 42,000 - but they thought like giants and against giants. Household names such as Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan and Robert Pires joined because they paid well and played well.
Juan Carlos Garrido, the reserve team coach, replaced Valverde after leading Villarreal B through three promotions and up to seventh in Spain's second tier.
Initially a caretaker coach, he made the job his own as results improved and they finished seventh in the top tier with fans demanding more of the same.
Garrido had seen the future on his doorstep. Of Villarreal's 12 summer acquisitions, nine came from the reserve side he had managed so well. He welded that with the experience of the incoming Carlos Marchena, 31, from Valencia - meaning Villarreal boasted more Spanish internationals than any club outside Barcelona. At the same time, several of the old guard like Pires and Javi Venta were allowed to leave as Garrido sought a future in youth.
Garrido also inspired some players who'd become a little long in the tooth. Goalkeeper Diego Lopez and Spanish internationals like left-back Joan Capdevila and winger Santiago Cazorla are playing the best football of their careers. Playmaker Marcos Senna is ably complemented by the recently capped Spanish international Bruno in midfield. Giuseppe Rossi has seen his forward partnership with the Brazilian Nilmar flourish.
Marchena has fitted in straight away alongside one of the promoted reserves, Argentinian central defender Mateo Musacchio, 20. They're playing the attacking football associated with the club and with more promoted youngsters waiting in the wing, have a squad strong enough to compete in Europe, too.
Villarreal face their toughest game of the season tomorrow against fellow Europa League competitors and current holders Atletico Madrid at El Madrigal. Returning hero Diego Forlan will be back at the club which relaunched his career for a clash between two teams with aspirations for a top four finish and future Champions League endeavours. And that's something neither club could have said a year ago.
10pm, Aljazeera Sport +3
Primera Liga fixtures
Real Zaragoza v Barcelona 8pm
Real Madrid v R Santander 10pm
Valencia v Mallorca midnight
Almeria v Hercules 7pm
Espanyol v Levante 7pm
Getafe v S Gijon 7pm
Osasuna v Malaga 7pm
Sevilla v A Bilbao 9pm
Villarreal v A Madrid 11pm
Real Sociedad v Deportivo 11pm