Few teams will look back on the 2015-16 campaign with as much satisfaction as Villarreal. A top four finish and a European semi-final exceeded pre-season expectations and Marcelino’s side will take their place amongst the continent’s elite for the first time in five years next term.
The loss of Gabriel Paulista and Luciano Vietto, to name but two from last season, once again left the squad severely depleted but the Yellow Submarine re-invested wisely, as they invariably do.
A new-look team gelled quickly and Villarreal made a strong start to the campaign, taking 16 points from their opening six games to assume top spot after a 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid at El Madrigal in late September. However, they would only take five points from their next seven games as once again the demands of combining both Primera Division and Europa League football appeared to take its toll.
With Sevilla and Valencia both struggling in the League, though, a top four finish was becoming an increasingly realistic target for a host of sides and a six-game winning streak around the festive period saw Villarreal steal a real march on their rivals. Strong defensive displays and very solid home form was the base of their success with Real Madrid and Valencia both seen off 1-0 on home soil by the turn of year.
That victory over Los Che on New Year’s Eve saw them assume fourth place, a position they would retain for the entire remainder of the campaign. Despite briefly threatening to catch Real Madrid in third, it was never likely to be a realistic target particularly once European football kicked in again.
By the time their tricky Europa League first knock-out round tie with Napoli came around, their cushion on the chasing pack was now so sizable they could afford to really target the competition. During the final months of the campaign Marcelino frequently rested many of his key players in the League, the main reason why their final advantage on the fifth place Athletic Bilbao was only two points.
Despite a couple of difficult draws, Villarreal made excellent progress in the Europa League, beating Napoli 2-1 on aggregate prior to a 2-0 aggregate win against Bayer Leverkusen. We saw a more enterprising Villarreal against Sparta Prague in the quarter-finals as Cedric Bakambu netted braces in both legs and the Spaniards booked their place in the last four.
A 1-0 home win in the semi-final first leg against Liverpool got Villarreal fans dreaming of winning major silverware for the first time in the club’s history but there would be no fairy tale ending. A 3-0 defeat in the return leg at Anfield certainly ranks as the biggest disappointment of an otherwise excellent season.
Marcelino clearly learnt from the errors of the previous campaign, when injuries and fatigue really hit hard in the final few months and Villarreal’s form in all competitions began to implode. This time around he played much-weakened teams in the Copa del Rey and an early exit in the competition against Athletic may well have been a real blessing in disguise.
Their success this term was a true team effort with no real stars in their ranks. Special mentions should go to long-serving Bruno Soriano, whose experience and quality rubbed off on the younger players around him, including Denis Suarez, who enjoyed a real breakthrough campaign following his summer switch from Barcelona.
Whether he’ll be at the club next term remains to be seen with the Catalans already said to be considering activating the buy-back clause in his contract but the one man Villarreal cannot afford to lose is surely the Coach. Marcelino has masterminded the club’s rise from the Segunda Division to the Champions League in just three years and he was the true star of the show this season.