Villarreal have turned a team of Premier League rejects into Champions League semi-finalists – and now they’re demanding respect from ‘humble’ Liverpool ahead of European semi-final
- Villarreal travel to Liverpool for the first leg of Champions League semi-final
- The Spanish club say they are demanding respect from the Premier League side
- Unai Emery’s side is formed by a lot of players who have played in England
- Juan Foyth, Etienne Capoue and Dani Parejo have all played in Premier League
‘Liverpool will be a bit more humble than Bayern Munich were,’ said Villarreal defender Pau Torres ahead of this week’s Champions League semi-final. ‘They will know what we are all about.’
Torres was referring to the way the German team underestimated the smallest club left in the competition. But Liverpool will be more than aware of their opponents on Tuesday night, and not just for their exploits against the Bundesliga champions.
Almost half the Villarreal squad have played in England, it’s part of their off-the-wall charm that none did well enough to stay, and yet here they are 180 minutes from the Paris final, under the guiding hand of Unai Emery, who also knows what it feels like to not be given time in the Premier League.
Villarreal’s players celebrate their victory against Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals
Torres, who was speaking last week at the renaming of Villarreal’s sports centre in his honour, is one of the odd men out. He could have joined Tottenham last summer but chose to stay and play for his hometown club in Europe. Liverpool also looked at signing him last season.
In the rest of the squad there are 10 Villarreal players who have been on the books of English clubs. Juan Foyth moved to Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino in 2017. He played less and less under Jose Mourinho and moved to Villarreal in 2020. He is now first-choice right-back for his club and a regular for Argentina.
The other Villarreal full-back when they knocked out Bayern was Pervis Estupin an, signed from Watford at the start of last season. The Ecuador defender joined Watford in 2016 from LDU Quito but never made a competitive first-team appearance. He was signed to make money and after four loan moves he brought in £15m when Villarreal signed him in 2020.
Juan Foyth has become a regular starter for Unai Emery’s side since joining from Tottenham
The entire midfield quartet that held out at the Allianz Arena played in England. Etienne Capoue was also at Watford and Spurs, Giovani Lo Celso still belongs to Spurs, and Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin have played for Queens Park Rangers and Arsenal.
Capoue joined Watford from Spurs in 2015 and was named player of the season at the end of the 2018-19 campaign when Watford reached the FA Cup final and finished 11th.
Emery was undeterred by the former Toulouse man’s age and at 33 he has been as good as anyone in midfield in La Liga this season.
Lo Celso arrived on loan last January after falling out with Antonio Conte, who left him out of squads completely even though fit.
Giovanni Lo Celso, similarly to his compatriot Foyth, has found new life at the Spanish side
Parejo played on loan at QPR from Real Madrid in 2008 and then owner Flavio Briatore called the deal an ‘incredible coup’.
Coquelin won the FA Youth Cup with Arsenal in 2019 having signed from Laval the season before but he left in January 2018 after only making one Premier League start.
And if these are all clever deals by the club, owned for the last 25 years by ceramics magnate and local businessman Fernando Roig, then the capture of winger Arnaut Danjuma tops the lot.
His 17 goals in the Championship for Bournemouth last season failed to inspire any of the Premier League’s directors of football and Villarreal swooped for the Holland winger.
Arnaut Danjuma is Villarreal’s top goal scorer in La Liga this year with ten goals
He has aspirations of morphing, Cristiano Ronaldo-style, from wide supplier to central striker and 16 goals in 26 starts suggests it’s not beyond him.
Keeper Gero Rulli signed for Manchester City but never played for them, reserve midfielder Vicente Iborra was at Leicester, full-back Serge Aurier was at Tottenham, and injured Alberto Moreno played for Liverpool when they were beaten by Unai Emery’s Sevilla in the Europa League final in 2016.
Under Emery’s guidance these players have helped the club from the town of only 50,000 inhabitants reach their Champions League semi-final.
‘We are not here in the semi-finals just so that people can say we’re cute, a small town club that everyone likes,’ Emery said after the team disposed of Bayern Munich. ‘We are here because this is a serious project.’
It is one that has scooped up players Premier League clubs had finished with or did not fancy, and turned them into something special.
Etienne Capoue has already won the Europa League with Villarreal since joining from Watford