Coach: Fran Escriba
Key signings: Denis Cheryshev, Alexandre Pato, Roberto Soriano
Key sales: Eric Bailly, Samu Garcia, Denis Suarez
Last season: 4th
This season [predicted finish]: 5th
(Predictions made before Escriba replaced Marcelino)
It seemed as if nothing could stop Villarreal after their qualification for the Champions League playoffs last season. Marcelino had successfully built on his two sixth-place finishes by taking the Yellow Submarine into Europe's elite club competition, but all of the Coach's work has threatened to be undone by a summer of mayhem.
The side's work in the transfer market suggested they were well on their way towards the much-fabled next level, but there was just one problem – one that consumed all before it – named Mateo Musacchio. The defender had reportedly demanded Villarreal let him join Milan, to which Marcelino responded by culling him for much of the side's preseason.
However, the Rossoneri's failure to push through a deal resulted in Musacchio remaining a Villarreal player, albeit at a reported cost – his third-captain status. Marcelino's treatment of the player was said to have been savaged by senior members of the dressing room, and that coupled with mounting pressure from the board to diffuse the situation meant it was curtains for the former Real Zaragoza and Sevilla boss.
A shock managerial vacancy had opened up, but what was more shocking was the identity of who filled it. Fran Escriba had won plaudits for his work as assistant to Quique Sanchez Flores and in establishing Elche as a La Liga outfit for two seasons, but his last job ended in dismissal at freshly-relegated Getafe. Nonetheless, he was considered the ideal man to bring stability back to the Submarine.
Nonetheless, it would be wrong to write off Escriba and his new charges so quickly after a summer of serious spending, kicked off by the return of former loanee Denis Cheryshev from Real Madrid, surely with a point to prove following his humiliating involvement in Los Blancos' Copa del Rey expulsion last season. The Russian was swiftly supplemented by Alfred N'Diaye, the defender-midfielder rewarded for his big strides at Real Betis.
Then there are the 'big boys' in Germany-born Italy internationals Roberto Soriano and Nicola Sansone. Soriano arrives for a reported €15m from Sampdoria and with a burgeoning reputation in the game as a midfield all-rounder, while Sansone is seen as equally promising for €2m less after yet another season of causing headaches for Serie A defences with his versatile forward play out wide or through the middle.
Outshining them, however, is probably Villarreal's biggest gamble yet in Alexandre Pato. The ex-Milan star has endured a tough few years with injury and loss of form, having seen his career fail to reignite at Sao Paulo and Chelsea, but his spell with Corinthians sandwiched in between shows he still possibly has what it takes to rediscover his prolificacy at the top level.
Porto pair Jose Angel and Andres Fernandez have also arrived to provide depth at left-back and in goal respectively, along with Atletico Madrid's Rafael Santos Borre as a stop-gap for cruciate-ligament injury victim Roberto Soldado, plus a player of great promise in winger Cristian Espinoza, however it remains to be seen whether the losses of lynchpins Eric Bailly and Denis Suarez will be offset.