The hidden depths of Villarreal's submarine

Click to follow
The Independent Football

As Arsène Wenger sat in his Turin hotel the evening before Arsenal's Champions' League quarter-final second leg against Juventus, he switched on the television to watch Villarreal's astonishing humiliation of another great Italian club name, Internazionale.

Unsurprisingly, the man who caught Wenger's eye was Juan Roman Riquelme. The Arsenal manager later talked admiringly of "the special player" who can "create goals, score goals and has a lot of charisma". He could just as easily have been speaking about Thierry Henry, even if the Argentinian playmaker operates at a rather more sedate pace than his own French flier.

But then Riquelme and Henry, who meet for the first leg at Highbury on Wednesday, have more in common than having inspired their clubs into the last four of Europe's premier competition for the first time. They are also hugely in demand. And making huge demands. Henry, with just a year left on his Arsenal contract and with Barcelona, Riquelme's former club, hovering, has talked consistently through the Champions' League campaign of being a "winner". Defeating Real Madrid was not enough, eliminating Juve was insufficient. Lifting the trophy in Paris next month is all that matters.

Riquelme is of the same breed. "Yes, I'm happy for the club and the people in our community that Villarreal are in the semi-finals when most analysts would never have expected us to achieve this," he says of the victory over Inter and this season's achievements. "Immediately after the whistle I heard people speaking so excitedly about what a 'grand' thing we had achieved.

"I accept that knocking Inter out is not the same as knocking out a 'nobody'. They are aristocrats of Europe with many great players, so we have achieved something special in our debut Champions' League season.

"But my view has always been, and will always be, that when we walk on the pitch it is 11 versus 11 - you don't play their history or their potential. However, I stress: we haven't won anything yet. People remember you for becoming a champion, not for reaching a semi-final."

It could be Henry speaking. But then Riquelme's journey from the margins of a great club - in his case Barça - has been similar to that of Henry, who failed to make an impact, of course, at Juve before being rescued after just a few months back in 1999 by Wenger. Riquelme's plight was more dramatic - Henry was a World Cup winner, after all - just as Villarreal's success provides an even more romantic storyline than Arsenal's.

Indeed, Riquelme personifies the tiny club, who hail from the eastern coast of Spain and a town which is really just a village - with two hotels and a population that falls 12,000 short of filling Arsenal's new 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium. Their own El Madrigal ground holds just 22,000. "The fans of Villarreal are on a quest," explains Javi Mata, a sociology expert and fan. "Even a lot of Spaniards haven't a clue where Villarreal is. Villarreal games were a chance to give Spain a lesson in geography, so you can imagine how we feel about Europe."

Just nine years ago, Villarreal - known as El Submarino Amarillo (The Yellow Submarine) - were mid-table in Spanish football's second tier. Then they were bought for £250,000 by Fernando Roig, a ceramics millionaire and one of the town's main employers, who poured in his own cash.

Roig had a simple but bold policy. He signed big. But he also signed hungry - players who had obvious talent but who had, somehow, failed to prosper at more fêted clubs. Players such as Riquelme. And Diego Forlan. And Juan Pablo Sorin. Indeed, Villarreal are awash with South Americans, including their Chilean coach, Manuel Pellegrini, with Roig believing they have the professionalism and ruthless edge to succeed, alongside obvious skill.

Forlan is the holder of the Golden Shoe, his 25 goals for Villarreal last season making him, with Henry, Europe's most potent scorer. And this from the Man-chester United misfit. Little wonder the Uruguayan says: "We are living a dream and we can only hope that it doesn't stop." Sorin, similarly, has been transformed from a player who struggled at Barça and Juve to become the captain of Argentina, while Riquelme is his country's creative hub who led England such a merry dance last autumn.

It is the latter who sums up the Villarreal effect. "They did rescue me when things were far from perfect at Barcelona," says the 27-year-old who signed, initially on loan, in 2003 after just one year at the Nou Camp. "It's not that I was treated badly or that I dislike the club - not at all.

"But I enjoy very much the affection for, and the enjoyment of, my style of playing which are on offer here at Villarreal. I've had the great good fortune already in my life to play for a 'great' club in Boca Juniors and I like the fact that Villarreal is a club where the president's goal is to grow in stature and ambition every single year. It's what I emphasised last season when everyone got so excited about us finishing third in La Liga.

"I pointed out that the players had to keep pushing and fighting in order to achieve more. Now that opportunity has arrived."

Roig also knows - as with Henry at Arsenal - other clubs are circling for Riquelme, including United and Inter, two of those conquered this season. "He's under contract to us for this and three more seasons, and although there is a buy-out clause in Roman's contract, it is well over €40m [£28m] and a club would have to pay every cent of that in order to get near him," Roig says.

Riquelme's worth cannot just be summed up in monetary terms. His team-mate, the Italian defender Alesso Tacchinardi, who won the Champions' League with Juventus in 1996, says simply: "Roman is a footballing superstar, a world-class player who raises this team above itself and who it is a privilege to play alongside. Arsenal are a fine side with exciting players, but we are ready for them." Wenger, Henry and Arsenal have been warned.

Riquelme for a dream: Anatomy of a European conqueror

Temperament

Juan Roman Riquelme's £7m move from Boca Juniors to Barcelona ended unhappily as he failed to make an impression. The suspicion exists that he prefers to be a big fish in a small pond like Villarreal. Can blow hot and cold.

Brain

An old-style, put-his-foot-on-the-ball Argentinian playmaker who can change the rhythm of a game and control his team's tempo. Last season the Spanish newspaper Marca awarded him the title of "Most Artistic Player".

Pace

Riquelme has been criticised for being too slow. But he has a deceptive surging power to go with his balance and poise, and he is not averse to the odd hand-off to find a way through defences.

Passing

Great disguise and an eye for the decisive pass. Riquelme remains calm in possession, while his wonderful close control gives him time on the ball. Has the skill to carve up the tightest defence. Gently destructive.

Shooting

Has a very powerful shot and is not afraid to try his luck from distance or unlikely angles. Also provides excellent delivery from free-kicks. Can play off either foot.

Comments