Villarreal’s UCL run sinks another top side as Bayern waste key chances
5: 52 PM ET
Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC
MUNICH, Germany — The Allianz Arena speakers blared “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and “The Show Must Go On” as soon as the final whistle blew on Bayern Munich‘s Champions League hopes for another season, but they wouldn’t have heard either of those mournful songs in the tiny section housing the Villarreal supporters.
They were too busy celebrating their team’s 2-1 aggregate win which sealed a place in the Champions League semifinals. Once again, Unai Emery’s remarkable side had shocked a European superpower. Last week’s 1-0 victory over Bayern at El Madrigal was followed by a 1-1 draw here in Germany, earning the “Yellow Submarine” a semifinal date against either Liverpool or Benfica.
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Leading 3-1 from the first-leg in Lisbon, Liverpool are almost certain to confirm themselves as Villarreal’s opponents in the last four when they host the return against the Portuguese team at Anfield on Wednesday. Even the most cautious Liverpool supporter will be celebrating Villarreal’s progression — as poor as Bayern Munich were over the two legs, they are still the six-time tournament winners and perennial Bundesliga champions. And Villarreal are what they have always been, a team that punches way above their weight.
They are a club from a town with a population of just 51,000 — less than half the capacity of Barcelona‘s Camp Nou — and had never won a major trophy until last season’s dramatic penalty shoot-out win against Manchester United in the Europa League final in Gdansk, Poland. That victory earned Villarreal the final spot in this season’s Champions League and they have certainly made the most of it. Emery’s team stunned Juventus in Turin to eliminate the Italian giants in the Round of 16 and they have now beaten Bayern.
“If you want to achieve something in this competition you need to beat the big teams,” Emery said. “We took the first step [in the last 16] with Juventus. With Bayern we analysed the game well.”
For Bayern manager Julian Nagelsmann, no matter what he achieves domestically this season, his first year as Bayern coach will be deemed unsuccessful because of this result, something he even admitted.
“We are out of the German Cup, out of the Champions League. I don’t think this is good enough for Bayern. We had the semifinals as our minimum goal and we failed to achieve it,” Nagelsmann said. “It counts as one of my top three defeats.”
But Villarreal keep rolling on. In less than 12 months, this small club from a tiny town in northeastern Spain has beaten Manchester United, Juventus and Bayern Munich — iconic clubs with 11 Champions League titles between them. So Liverpool — if it turns out to be Jurgen Klopp’s team — should be wary of under-estimating Villarreal because they are a side that are exceptionally well-drilled and organised. They are hard-working and committed and they have a taste for upsetting European football royalty.
Arnaut Danjuma‘s goal in the first-leg — Francis Coquelin had another goal ruled out by VAR — gave Villarreal a slender advantage going into this game and it seemed an impossible task for Emery’s side considering that Bayern, with 30 goals in the competition this season prior to kick-off, were the top scorers in the Champions League by some distance, with Manchester City in second place on 24 goals. Bayern create chances and score goals, but they didn’t score in Spain and Emery’s game-plan for this fixture was clear from the start — a packed defence with barely touching distance between the back four and midfield when defending. At one point in the first-half, every Villarreal player was behind the eighteen-yard line as they attempted to frustrate Bayern, and the tactic worked.
But to add to the home side’s annoyance, Villarreal also took every opportunity to kill the game by running down the clock by time-wasting or making the most of any challenge would forced one of their players to claim injury. Despite an array of attacking talent which saw them come out with five forwards, Bayern couldn’t break through and Villarreal had the best first-half chances — both wasted by Danjuma and Gerard Moreno. But when Robert Lewandowski put Bayern ahead and levelled the aggregate scores by finishing off a Thomas Muller pass on 52 minutes, it seemed inevitable that the home side would surge to the victory by exploiting gaps in the Villarreal defence.
Yet although Bayern created 24 attempts on goal, they could only manage four on target. Bayern lacked guile and were as predictable going forward as Villarreal were with their defensive tactics. Thomas Muller missed an easy chance on 71 minutes, heading Leroy Sane‘s cross wide from six yards, but Villarreal were never overrun. They never are. And they had a counter-punch too, displayed with devastating timing when substitute Samu Chukwueze beat the offside trap to score from Moreno’s pass on 88 minutes.
That was game, set and match for Villarreal and Emery had pulled off another tactical victory against a highly-rated coach. Emery, who lasted less than two seasons as Arsenal coach, has proven himself to be a coach of European pedigree by winning four Europa Leagues — three with Sevilla and one with Villarreal. Can he add a Champions League to his record this season? The odds are against him, but time and again, Villarreal have shown us that it’s a risky business betting against them, no matter how illustrious their opponents happen to be.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.