Regarded as one of La Liga’s leading clubs in recent times, Villarreal’s shock relegation at the end of last season took the whole of Spanish football by surprise, yet many predicted an instant return for a club that has graced European football over the past decade. However, the reality has proved somewhat different.
Despite a flying start with five wins and two draws from the opening seven fixtures, Villarreal’s season since then has proved to be something of a disappointment as three wins from the following 14 games meant they struggled to keep up with the promotion pacesetters. Unsurprisingly, boss Julio Velazquez, who had come through the ranks in charge of the club’s B and C teams, was dismissed and became the fourth Villarreal boss to depart in just over a year after a 1-1 draw at Almeria in early January – Juan Carlos Garrido and Jose Francisco Molina had both been sacked, while Miguel Angel Lotina left after overseeing the descent into La Segunda.
Velazquez’s replacement was named as Marcelino Garcia Toral, whose experience on the bench in the last 10 years has encompassed spells with Sporting Gijon, Recreativo de Huelva, Racing Santander, Real Zaragoza and Sevilla. Marcelino had been without a club since being axed at the Sanchez Pizjuan in February 2012, yet the Asturian was chosen from a list of candidates that reportedly contained names such as Gregorio Manzano and Unai Emery.
A 5-0 drubbing at the hands of Real Madrid Castilla in his first game hardly inspired confidence as Villarreal slipped out of the play-off places, but last Saturday’s last-gasp 2-1 win over Sporting Gijon at El Madrigal made it 15 points from seven games since with no defeats. It is a run that has seen Marcelo’s men climb into fifth spot and reignite the fans’ aspirations of Primera football next term, with many citing his signing of several new players in January as the primary reason for the upturn in fortunes.
Striker Jeremy Perbet, signed on loan from French outfit Mons, has made a favourable impression with three goals in as many games and Mexican international winger Javier Aquino has also shone in his brief appearances to date, after agreeing to join from Cruz Azul. In addition, defender Jose Antonio ‘Chechu’ Dorado, midfielder Juanma and forward Jonathan Pereira were all brought in from Real Betis, the latter returning to the club after a previous spell between 2006 and 2010 that included season-long loans at both Racing Ferrol and Racing Santander.
Although all five have not been undisputed first choices in Marcelino’s starting line-up, their incorporation has at least given the squad a feeling of depth that it previously lacked. Their arrival has also appeared to bring out the best in the rest of the players, whereas 36-year-old holding midfielder and captain Marcos Senna now has the necessary personnel around him to make his vast experience count as he enters the twilight of his career.
With just under a third of the season remaining Villarreal once more have their sights on guaranteed promotion via the automatic runners-up spot, currently occupied by Almeria who have a five-point advantage over them, while leaders Elche are a full 17 points ahead having virtually guaranteed the title even at this stage.
For an outfit that is often viewed as the role model for the manner in which a club should be managed financially, and one that celebrated its 90th anniversary this week, Villarreal’s restoration to the top flight cannot come soon enough for a whole host of La Liga fans. Whether Marcelino’s appointment will deliver the necessary momentum to carry it off over the next three months remains to be seen, but it should now be an interesting finale to a season that initially promised so much before faltering so unexpectedly.