Road to UEL’s final: Pau Torres

Few young defenders have made a quicker impact on LaLiga than Villarreal’s Pau Torres, with the physically and technically gifted centre-back’s present quality and future potential clear for all to see. 

Just three months after making his first LaLiga Santander start, the composed and committed 22-year-old impressed sufficiently to earn a call up to Spain’s senior international side. He then scored just 59 seconds into his La Roja debut, in November’s 7-0 Euro 2020 qualifier against Malta, with Villarreal clubmates Santi Cazorla, Gerard Moreno and centre-back partner Raul Albiol all on-hand to join in the celebrations. He’s now a fixture at the back for both club and country, and looks set to lead the defensive line for Spain at this summer’s European Championships. 

While few would have predicted such a spectacular debut on the international stage, Torres was long seen as an outstanding defensive prospect as he moved seamlessly up towards the top senior level through recent seasons. 

Born in the town of Villarreal in January 1997, when the town’s club had not yet dreamed of playing at LaLiga Santander level, Torres joined their youth ranks aged just six years old, and also overcame a serious double leg break as a teenager as he progressed towards the senior ranks. 

The 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons saw him a regular starter as Villarreal’s B side challenged for promotion from the Segunda B third tier. His first team debut came aged 19 in the Copa del Rey in December 2016, while he also gained European experience in that season’s Europa League with the seniors and Youth League with the under-19s. The following year he made his LaLiga Santander debut as a late substitute at Sevilla’s Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium. 

Other clubs had also been following his progression carefully, and Malaga took him on loan for 2018/19 campaign. He played 40 times in LaLiga SmartBank last season, as the Andalusian side also just missed out on promotion to LaLiga Santander. A first senior goal came at Osasuna in November 2018, but it was his defensive solidity and calmness on the ball which really impressed with the Andalusians. 

Then-Villarreal first team coach Javi Calleja had been a close follower of Torres’ development, and decided to make him a first-choice central defender for 2019/20 alongside experienced veteran Raul Albiol. The complementary pairing clicked immediately, playing almost every minute together over the first 15 matches of the LaLiga season. 

Despite being new to the top level, Torres was not overawed by taking on big name attackers like Karim Benzema and Luis Suarez as Villarreal matched Real Madrid in a 2-2 draw at the Estadio de la Ceramica and were narrowly defeated 2-1 at Barcelona’s Camp Nou. The opening weeks also saw the youngster also got his first senior goal for his hometown club, again at Osasuna’s El Sadar. 

Quick to learn, the left-footed now 24-year-old is excellent in the air, no surprise given his 1.91 metre frame, and impressive at reading the game. Well capable of passing the ball accurately out from the back, he has said he modelled his play on Villarreal legend Bruno Soriano. 

In fact, Giuseppe Rossi, Villarreal’s all-time leading goalscorer who trained with the first-team squad back in 2019 with a view to making a comeback following a series of serious knee injuries, declared that “the sky is the limit” for the youngster.  

In spite of his age, Torres is now a regular for Spain and one of the finest centre-backs in LaLiga. His quality has been instrumental in Villarreal’s run to the UEFA Europa League final, and the coming years should bring much more recognition and success for one of Spain’s best  defenders. 

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Road to UEL’s final: Carlos Bacca

Goals and Carlos Bacca go hand in hand. The Colombian has scored 62 goals in 181 matches across his six seasons in LaLiga, the last three of which came in a memorable hat-trick against his former side. 

1. Carlos was born in Puerto Colombia, five minutes from the Caribbean Sea on Colombia’s northern coast. Before making the jump to professional football, Bacca worked part-time as a bus ticket salesman on the line between his hometown and Barranquilla. He would also help his father, who was a fisherman.  

2. His breakthrough came at the age of 22, older than many of his contemporaries, when he signed his first professional contract with Junior Barranquilla. He certainly made an impact on his debut, though. Coming on with 20 minutes to go with the game tied at 0-0, Carlos scored with his first two touches. The rest is history.   

3. On the penultimate day of the 2020/21 LaLiga season, he wrote his name into the history books with a hat-trick for Villarreal CF against Sevilla FC, his former club. His three-goal haul saw him become the only player in the history of the Yellow Submarine to score three hat-tricks for the club, passing club and LaLiga legend Diego Forlan (2). 

4. Carlos has spoken on many occasions of his love for Colombian food, in particular his mother’s cooking and shrimp! 

5. He was awarded the Barranquilla City Medal at the Colombian embassy in Madrid in 2014, in recognition of his sporting achievements and how he is an example for future generations of Colombians.  

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Road to UEL’s final: Unai Emery

Emery returned to LaLiga this season with Villarreal and, though a well-known name around the world, here are five things you might not know about the Basque tactician. 

1. His grandfather conceded the first ever LaLiga goal 

LaLiga was launched way back in 1929, with the inaugural match being RCD Espanyol vs Real Unión Irún on February 10th. Remarkably, the Irun goalkeeper that day was a certain Antonio Emery, Unai’s grandfather. Unfortunately for Antonio, he went down in history as the man who conceded the first ever LaLiga goal to Pitus Prat as Espanyol won 3-2. Unai’s father – and Antonio’s son – Juan Emery, also played as a goalkeeper for Real Unión Irún, amongst other clubs. 

2He once selected his starting line-up by rolling dice 

After a modest playing career, Emery took to coaching and quickly guided UD Almería to Spain’s top division for the first time in their history. Their first game at LaLiga Santander level was against RC Deportivo and Emery, keen to show his squad how much he trusted them no matter which XI started the match, rolled dice to determine his line-up. And it worked! The Andalusians won 3-0 on the day to make the perfect start to their top-flight history.   

3He won three Europa Leagues in a row, something no manager in history can match 

Emery’s greatest achievements as a coach came with Sevilla when he won three consecutive Europa League titles in 2013, 2014 and 2015. He shares the distinction of winning the trophy on three occasions with the great Giovanni Trapattoni, but the honour of winning it three times in a row is his and his alone. He now has the chance to make it four, which would make him the most successful manager in the history of the competition.  

4. He spent time in Russian football 

While Emery’s spells in the French and English capitals with PSG and Arsenal are well known, he also spent time in Moscow earlier on in his managerial career. After coaching Lorca, Almería and Valencia, Emery headed to the Russian capital to take charge of Spartak Moscow in 2012. He was only at the club for half a year, before being lured back to Spain to embark on his triumphant spell in charge of Sevilla.  

5He’s a published author 

In between coaching training sessions and analysing matches from the touchline, Emery found time to write a book about his managerial success. Published in 2012, it was written in collaboration with Juan Carlos Cubeiro and titled ‘Mentalidad Ganadora: El Método Emery’ – or, in English, ‘Winning Mentality: The Emery Methodology’.  

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