The Yellow Submarine will face Manchester United in the Europa League final on May 26th after knocking out Arsenal in London.
Fifteen years after falling to Arsenal in the semi-finals of the Champions League, Villarreal CF have turned the tables around and knocked the English side out of European competition to reach the 2020/21 Europa League final, their first ever major final. After defeating the Gunners 2-1 at home in the first leg, the Yellow Submarine drew 0-0 in London to reach the showpiece event against Manchester United in the Polish city of Gdansk on May 26th.
Villarreal’s achievement is incredible for so many reasons. The city of Vila-real has a population of just 50,000 people, which means that every resident could fit inside Arsenal’s stadium and leave 10,000 seats left over. Sadly, the supporters couldn’t attend this semi-final due to the coronavirus restrictions, but they were cheering on back home and setting off fireworks into the night sky in celebration at what is a historic night for Villarreal and for LaLiga.
Villarreal’s presence in the Europa League final means that seven of the past ten finals of this competition have had at least one LaLiga Santander team competing for the prize, with the trophy coming back to Spain on all seven occasions.
After Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético de Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla, Espanyol, Athletic Club, Alavés, Real Zaragoza and RCD Mallorca, Villarreal have become the 11th LaLiga team to reach a major UEFA final, not counting the summer tournament of the Intertoto Cup, which the club from the Valencian Community twice enjoyed success in.
The club are fulfilling a long-term dream of club president Fernando Roig. When he took over at the Estadio de la Cerámica in the 1990s, Villarreal had never played a single season in Spain’s top division. To put this into context, their very first campaign at LaLiga Santander level was the same year that their upcoming opponents Manchester United won an international treble in 1998/99.
However, through a solid project based on developing their world-class academy structure and on recruiting the best up-and-coming talents from around the globe, the Yellow Submarine have risen and have now reached one of the glamour fixtures of the European footballing calendar.
They have been close before. This victory over Arsenal was their fourth Europa League semi-final, in addition to the Champions League semi-final against the Gunners in 2005/06. Current first-team centre-back and Spain international Pau Torres was in the stands as a nine-year-old boy that night when Juan Román Riquelme saw his penalty saved by Jens Lehmann and will now have the chance to compete for what would be Villarreal’s first major trophy. For Torres, a local kid, this is a dream come true.
Villarreal have already overcome all the odds to reach this point, playing a bold and winning brand of football that has made all those watching on forget about how small a club this really is by most metrics. But they play like a big team and have a coach who knows what it takes to go all the way, with Unai Emery having won the Europa League with Sevilla on three occasions and also finishing as a runner-up in this competition once more when he was in charge of Arsenal.
“Dreams are free and I dream of winning a title with Villarreal,” Emery said at his introductory press conference when he was hired as the new coach of the club in the summer of 2020. The Yellow Submarine are now one step away from completing their fairy tale.