If there was one man Villarreal could rely on, it was him. If there was one man they wanted standing over that penalty, it was him. If there was one man in their squad born for such a situation, it was him.
It is April 25, 2006, the kind of night the Valencian city of Vila-Real has seen few of. It’s playing host to a Champions League semi-final just eight years on from seeing its team, Villarreal, earn their first promotion to LaLiga.
Having lost the first leg of the semi 1-0 to Arsenal in London, they have so far failed to find a way to level the tie, despite laying siege to the Gunners’ goal.
But with time almost up, they have the perfect opportunity to seize the initiative as a marginal call goes their way: Gael Clichy is deemed, somewhat harshly, to have fouled Jose Mari in the box.
Up steps Juan Roman Riquelme, their undisputed talisman and one of the finest midfielders of his generation. A player possessed with the kind of technical wizardry on the ball that few others are – there’s surely only one outcome?
But Riquelme’s spot-kick is a poor one, placed to his right and at the perfect height for Jens Lehmann in the Arsenal goal.
The German easily makes the save, and Arsenal – not little Villarreal – are going to their first Champions League final.
They met again in the quarter-finals three years later but the tie was rather more one-sided, Arsenal winning 4-1 on aggregate.
Twelve years on and the Gunners aren’t quite the power they once were, and Villarreal are looking to settle a score when they meet in their Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday.
So too is Unai Emery.
— Villarreal CF (@VillarrealCF) April 26, 2021
A hiding to nothing
Emery’s time at Arsenal was probably doomed from the start. Succeeding Arsene Wenger, even with the lack of success towards the end of his tenure, was always going to be a tough ask.
In his second season at the helm, for a while it seemed only a matter of time before he went from Gunner to gonner. He was eventually dismissed on November 29, 2019, and the following month saw Mikel Arteta appointed as his successor.
Though, it’s fair to say Arsenal have not seen much of an improvement under Arteta, whose 79 matches in charge is just one more than Emery managed.
Arteta’s win percentage of 51 is shy of Emery’s 55, while under the latter the Gunners scored 152 (compared to 127). The main difference in the current coach’s favour is that they have conceded considerably fewer (80, down from 100), which perhaps is likely linked to the fact Arsenal are less of a threat in attack now.
Emery’s Villarreal arguably come into this tie as favourites as well. They boast a better record almost across the board for this season, winning more often (53 per cent to 47), scoring more (87 to 82) and conceding fewer (47 to 54) than the Gunners, and their coach’s record in this competition speaks for itself having won it three times with Sevilla, losing just six of 39 games.
If Villarreal can qualify for their first European final, Gerard Moreno will probably have had something to do with it one way or another.
The Spain international is enjoying the best season of his career and is something of a triple-threat.
The key to Emery’s revenge plot
Moreno is a clever player. What makes his productivity in front of goal all the more impressive is the fact he’s rarely deployed as an out-and-out central striker.
Instead, Moreno prefers to operate from the right, coming inside on to his left foot and occasionally floating around to also maximise his creative talents.
After all, not only is he Villarreal’s top scorer with 20 goals this season in LaLiga, he’s also laid on the most chances (38) in the Yellow Submarine’s squad.
In fact, Lionel Messi (66) is one of only five forwards in LaLiga to play more key passes than the former Espanyol talent.
Moreno’s unpredictability is aided by excellent dribbling skills as well, with Messi, Javi Galan and Nabil Fekir the three individuals to better his 62 completed dribbles this term.
Additionally, his success rate is 62.6 per cent – to put that into context, Messi’s is 58.6.
Granted, his goalscoring record is slightly skewed by the fact he’s scored nine penalties this term, but Messi (25) is the sole LaLiga player outscoring him and he looks set to claim the Zarra award (given to the top-scoring Spaniard) for a second successive season.
His haul of 20 is also an improvement of 2.5 on his expected goals (xG) value as well, evidence that he’s putting away more chances than the average player would ordinarily expect.
Moreno has also carried that goalscoring form into the Europa League, where he stands joint second on the list of scorers with six.
The skillset possessed by Villarreal’s talisman makes him the ideal player to carry out a number of different roles, but it also means Arsenal have to be alive to the numerous ways he can hurt them: in front of goal, creatively, or with the ball at his feet.
The 29-year-old could have a major role to play for Spain at Euro 2020 at the end of the season. Having a decisive impact for Villarreal in such a big tie may be vital in earning more of Luis Enrique’s faith, with La Roja’s coach initially taking a little while to warm to him.
But for the moment all the trust he needs is Emery’s, and his form this term proves he has the tools to inspire Arsenal’s downfall and grasp revenge for the Yellow Submarine and their pilot.
- Soccer News Like
- Be the first of your friends!