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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 April 2019

Europa League: Santi Cazorla leads Villarreal into latest challenge of a surreal season

In a relegation fight in La Liga, Villarreal take on on Valencia the the quarter-finals of the Europa League

Santi Cazorla returned to Villarreal after an injury-ravaged final few years at Arsenal and has been central to the team's run in the Europa League. AFP
Santi Cazorla returned to Villarreal after an injury-ravaged final few years at Arsenal and has been central to the team's run in the Europa League. AFP

It all got too much for Santi Cazorla last weekend. A footballer whose courage and all-round benevolence have made him among the most popular of his generation broke down in tears after one setback too many for the club he made his name at, Villarreal.

Cazorla had a penalty saved in the penultimate minute at Real Betis. Score it, and Villarreal would have sneaked out La Liga’s relegation zone. On his way out of the stadium, for the long trip home, Cazorla burst into tears.

Late mishaps are submerging the so-called Yellow Submarine, a Villarreal who lost to Celta Vigo after going 2-0 up 11 days ago, then drew with Barcelona after conceding two very late goals from 4-2 in front. Cazorla takes all this to heart because he is big-hearted and to him Villarreal are more than just a employer.

He feels responsible for shaping their season, one which began with the proud announcement that Cazorla, who first joined the club as a teenager, had come back after his long, injury-hampered spell with Arsenal.

He was presented to fans emerging out of a giant test tube, Cazorla grinning at the novelty unveiling and quietly counting his blessings. So badly damaged are some of his ligaments and bones that it was forecast two years ago he would never play professionally again.

As it happens the 34-year-old has set up more goals than any Villarreal player this season, and, testing his fragile, patched up joints with every outing, he is again the emblem of his club.

Cazorla, at 1.68m, has always been a delightfully diminutive triumph of brain over brawn; likewise Villarreal, the team from a town of less than 50,000 are a charming triumph of resourcefulness over metropolitan might.

On Thursday night, metropolitan might rolls into town in the form of Valencia, the noisy neighbours from just up the highway. At stake, a place in the semi-final of the Europa League, and, tantalisingly close, the opportunity for a final that, successfully negotiated, would put the winner in next season’s Champions League.

Valencia would value that, all the more since they slipped at the weekend to four points off fourth place in La Liga. For Villarreal, it would seem surreal, battling as they are to avoid second division football.

But their whole campaign has had a touch of the surreal, ever since Santi the Superhero jumped out of his test tube. Their domestic struggles - only six wins from 31 Liga matches - contrast with their efficient progress to the last eight of the Europa League, where they are 10 games unbeaten, and swashbuckling enough travellers to have won at Sporting Lisbon and struck three goals on each of their visits to Russia, against Spartak Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg.

Valencia’s journey was via the Champions League, a third place in a tough group behind Juventus and Manchester United, after which the club went on a 17 match unbeaten run until the weekend’s surprise loss to Ray Vallecano.

Like Villarreal, they have come through Glasgow’s fierce atmosphere to be in this quarter-final - Villarreal took two points off Rangers; Valencia knocked out Celtic - and like their neighbours they have conquered Russia, Valencia eliminating Krasnodar.

But the key game in the backstory is the last so-called Euroderby between the little and large of the valenciano region. Fifteen years ago, a rising Villarreal met a heavyweight Valencia, then on their way to a Liga title, in the semi-final of the Uefa Cup. Only a Valencia penalty, 16 minutes into the second leg, separated the teams, and Valencia went on to lift the Cup.

Cazorla made his Villarreal debut that season; the current Villarreal manager, Javi Calleja - who has been sacked and reappointed in the course of this oddball campaign - was in that squad, too.

Both insist that, for all the dangers lurking in La Liga’s last seven fixtures, the appetite for Europe remains sharp.

“Football has been cruel to us in the last few games,” says Cazorla, “but nobody should think we are going to throw away a competition because staying up is our priority.”

Updated: April 11, 2019 10:02 AM

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