When challenging for a top four position much like Villarreal are, the tough 1-0 wins such as Saturday’s against Malaga are as important as those they have enjoyed over Real and Atletico Madrid this season, not least as it stretches their unbeaten run in La Liga to 11 matches.
Comfortably occupying fourth in the table and through to the latter stages of the Europa League, everything seems to going swimmingly for the Yellow Submarine, and who look real contenders for Champions League football.
Their current achievements seem minor when one remembers that earlier this season they sat top of the League for the first time in their history. Coach Marcelino called it nothing but “a passing sensation” and that ultimately proved to be the case.
Keeping pace with the increasingly familiar top three of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid is a Herculean task but the coveted fourth spot is always up for grabs and never consistently held. Valencia got it last season and Athletic Bilbao before them. Going back further, it was Real Sociedad, Malaga and then Villarreal in 2011.
In that time they have dropped down into the Segunda, bounced back and now find themselves in the ascendancy. They finished a sizable 16 points off fourth-place Valencia last season, but their 14th win of the season sees them enjoy an 11-point lead over Sevilla. So what’s changed?
Perhaps they have their rivals to thank for some of their current success. Valencia and Gary Neville’s recent troubles have been well documented, and while Sevilla have turned things around, they struggled earlier in the season and are playing catch-up. Despite the shortcomings of the teams around them, they are there on merit.
It was difficult to quantify what kind of season Villarreal would have, given their squad overhaul in the summer. Out went their entire front line, including promising forward Luciano Vietto, Giovani Dos Santos, Ikechukwu Uche, Gerard Moreno and loanee Joel Campbell.
However the new boys haven’t done too badly in their stead. Cedric Bukambu has brought along all the goals he scored in Turkey and is the clubs top goal scorer, while Denis Suarez has looked an inspired signing at just €3m.
Roberto Soldado was signed as a goal-getting target-man but has shown a real creative touch since joining from Tottenham Hotspur and sits joint second in the La Liga assists tally. And it’s not just the summer arrivals. Mr Villarreal himself Bruno Soriano has found a new lease of life and looks set to rack up his best goals total, currently sitting on six for the season.
Even with their contributions, Marcelino’s side have been far from offensive juggernauts. In truth, their real strength lies in the defensive solidarity the tactician has instilled during his tenure, as his side boast the third best defence in the division. Perhaps it is with him where the greatest amount of praise should lie. Having taken over the club in the second division, he has promoted them and guided them to two sixth-place finishes.
The fun is just beginning for Villarreal. Up next is a Europa League clash with high-flying Italian side Napoli, before they take a trip to Madrid to take on Atletico. They are exactly the type of teams they will need to topple if they are to mix it with the best.