Though they have spent barely a decade in La Liga, Villarreal have grown accustomed to mixing it with the big boys, making light of their lack of tradition to shine on both the domestic and European stage.
Rarely out of the top ten since breaking into the big time, the Yellow Submarine are riding high again this season. With 13 games gone in Spain, Juan Carlos Garrido’s side lie third in the table, having suffered just two defeats so far, away to Real Sociedad and Barcelona.
The team from the south-eastern province of Castellon are also campaigning in Europe again, albeit thanks to somewhat fortuitous circumstances. After making a poor start to last season, they eventually finished just outside the European places in seventh, but were granted late entrance to the UEFA Europa League following Real Mallorca’s disqualification from the competition.
Currently third in their group, a solitary point behind PAOK Salonika and Dinamo Zagreb, the men in yellow remain confident of reaching the latter stages and of maintaining their lofty position in the league, as FIFA.com discovered when we caught up with goalkeeper Diego Lopez and midfielder Marcos Senna.
“We’ve made a very good start,” commented Lopez. “We’re in a great position and things are looking really good for the rest of the season. I just hope we can keep it up and take one of the Champions League spots. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Previously an understudy to Iker Casillas at Real Madrid, Lopez has had little cause to regret his decision to move to Villarreal in search of regular first-team football three years ago. His polished displays brought him a place in the Spain squad, although he has yet to make his international debut and just missed out on the trip to South Africa 2010, with Casillas, once again, standing ahead of him in the pecking order.
“What am I going to do?” said the smiling Lopez, who has conceded just 12 goals so far this term, with only Casillas and Barça custodian Victor Valdes letting in fewer. “My career has just happened to coincide with Iker’s and I have to accept it. He’s a very good goalkeeper, and we tend to have a lot of them in Spain. It’s a position we seem to excel in.”
In addition, the global economic crisis has forced the club's hand when it comes to blooding home-grown talent. Fortunately, these youngsters have combined to great effect with a solid core of older players such as Senna, Joan Capdevilla, recent signing Carlos Marchena and Santi Cazorla, a quartet that has played a hand in Spain’s recent international triumphs. Meanwhile further forward, Brazilian sharpshooter Nilmar and Italy front-runner Giuseppe Rossi are proving a formidable strike partnership.
Formerly the reserve-team boss and head of the club’s sporting academies, coach Garrido has stewarded the side effectively since taking over from Ernesto Valverde in February this year. Engineering a late charge last season, he restored the side’s confidence ahead of the new campaign.
“We’ve made a spectacular start,” said the Brazilian-born Senna. “We’re working hard and that’s what we need to keep doing. Getting there is tough but staying there is even harder. At the moment, though, we’re managing to do just that.”
The only two sides above Villarreal are leaders Real Madrid and title holders Barcelona, who lie eight and seven points clear respectively. With the big two starting to pull away from the pack, Lopez and Senna are holding out little hope of reining them back in.
“It definitely looks like a two-horse race,” said the custodian. “But then everyone expected that and it’s going to be very difficult to stay in their slipstream.”
“Right now I’d have to agree,” agreed his midfield team-mate. “They’ve got the best footballers with the best track records and we know it’s going to be extremely tough to compete with them. All we can do is keep going at our own pace and fight our own battle. We have to keep working towards our objective of a Champions League place.”
Asked to name a favourite for the upcoming FIFA Ballon d’Or, Senna opts for the Azulgrana contingent. “There are a lot of great players in there but I’d have to say that the Barcelona guys - [Lionel] Messi, Xavi and [Andres] Iniesta - are my favourites. Personally, I’d give it to Xavi, but it’s not an easy choice.”
Senna saw that for himself via a close-up look at the league champions in the 3-1 defeat at the Camp Nou ten days ago, a game that Messi settled with a second-half brace. The Argentinian ace then took his tally for the season to 13 by scoring his fifth La Liga hat-trick in the 8-0 rout of Almeria last weekend.
“When he’s on song he’s unstoppable and he seems to be on song all the time these days,” said an admiring Senna. “He’s a wonderful player and as everyone knows, it’s difficult to stop him.”
Yet while Messi and Co continue their private duel with Madrid, Villarreal will continue to focus on their immediate objectives. The first of those is a trip to Zaragoza on Saturday, followed by next week’s visit of Dinamo Zagreb, a game vital to the Yellow Submarine’s hopes of charting a successful course in the Europa League.