When Pau Torres smashed his penalty past David de Gea in the Europa League final last May it could have been his last kick for Villarreal. There was interest from a host of Premier League clubs and a Tottenham offer on the table.
He stayed because he is the first top-class player to come out of the tiny town on Spain’s east coast and no amount of money was going to deprive him of playing for them in the Champions League.
‘It was a dream come true to play in this competition with my boyhood team,’ he says ahead of Tuesday evening’s visit from Manchester United.
Pau Torres (above) is the first top-class player to come out of the tiny town of Villarreal
No amount of money was going to deprive him of playing for them in the Champions League
Whatever happens on Tuesday night he’ll be the first player home after the game. He’s not just one of a small group of Villarreal players with a medal, he really is the town’s most famous son and while the rest of the squad live in nearby cities or coastal towns he has stayed, even buying a property there.
He set a trend when he rejected the move away because coach Unai Emery stayed too, despite Saudi Arabian money ready to lure him to Newcastle on the day of Villarreal’s last group game against Young Boys.
‘We were all together in the morning of the match and the story came out,’ Torres recalls. ‘You always talk about these rumours with team-mates and this one affected us directly. The manager made it very clear to us that the match was all that mattered that night. We’re delighted that he stayed: he’s our leader.’
That decision to turn down Tottenham last summer and the subsequent Champions League draw set Torres up with a double header against Cristiano Ronaldo.
He’s is just one of a small group of Villarreal players with a medal after the Europa League win
Spain defender is Villarreal’s most famous son and rejected Tottenham’s summer advances
Last month at Old Trafford was the first time he had faced him. He doesn’t buy into the idea that at 36 years of age Ronaldo is now just a goal poacher.
‘It’s true that he had one chance and he put it away, but while people tend to only notice him when he scores, he spends the whole game making movements to get away from defenders.
‘When you’re moving that much, it’s normal that at some point your team-mates will find you. He’s there the whole 90 minutes trying to help his team.
‘He gets himself into positions to receive the ball, tries to open up lines of passing, tries to escape markers to be ready for crosses. He’s always looking to run in behind you or get in front of you.
He has faced Man United’s Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese scored a dramatic late winner against Villarreal in September
‘The fact that he always seems to deliver, a lot of that is down to his sheer persistence.’
Torres was speaking to Sportsmail before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked but he highlighted the ‘individualities’ of the opposition in the first leg, at times over an above what they were able to do as a team.
‘I don’t see them train, so I don’t know what idea they have but maybe with a bit more tactical order…’ he said. ‘It is true that in the first half their press broke down quite a lot. They have great players to get positive results from now on.’
Spain international Torres, who played in both of their qualifiers as they made it to next year’s World Cup last week, wants to be testing himself against the best. And he studies the best too.
Torres played in both of Spain’s qualifiers as they made it to next year’s World Cup last week
Torres, 24, wants to be testing himself against the best, but he also studies the best too
His role model is Liverpool’s Virgil van Djik and he has no doubts about where he rates him.
‘He is the best centre-back in the world right now. Because of his physical condition, it doesn’t matter if the opponent is fast, he can still leave him space to run and know that he is going to get there.
‘You have to watch the best and see how they deal with certain defensive situations. It’s interesting to see he handles being outnumbered, because they’re a team that play with a lot of people high up the pitch and he has a lot of metres behind him. Seeing how he positions himself against those counter-attacks is a real education.’
Van Djik’s Liverpool are another of the clubs following Torres, will he move to the Premier League once he has sampled Europe’s top competition with Villarreal?
‘I have still got years left on my contract (it runs out in 2024),’ he says. ‘I took a decision thinking about what is best for me at the moment. I really did want to play this competition with this club because you don’t know when the opportunity will appear again. Now let’s see how far we can go.’
His role model is Liverpool’s Virgil van Djik and he has no doubts about where he rates him
At Old Trafford he swapped shirts with De Gea – he might have done so after last season’s final but he wanted his own jersey to remember such a historic night, and De Gea was probably not in the mood for swapping after his penalty was saved to give Villarreal victory.
‘I have a good relationship with David and I would never have imagined taking a penalty against him.’
Torres was the last outfield player to take a spot-kick after the previous 19 players scored in the dramatic shoot-out.
‘It’s a situation that doesn’t happen often, where the whole team takes a penalty.
At Old Trafford he swapped shirts with David de Gea, with whom he has a good friendship
‘At first you think that with those first five it’s going to get done and then you see that no one misses, the sixth comes, the seventh, we were looking at each other, those that aren’t regular penalty takers, and thinking: oh man it might come to us!
‘I was clear about one thing – I couldn’t miss. I am the only one from the town and there were lots of people in the stand that I knew. When it went in a weight was lifted from me.’
It brings it home when he says that. ‘However much the club grows this is still a town with 50,000 people,’ he says proudly. ‘It’s not normal that such a small place has a club that does so well.’
Torres was the last outfield player to take a spot-kick in last season’s Europa League final