When Villarreal sacked their manager at the end of last season despite the fact that he had got them Europa League qualification it was a statement of ambition – they were tired of just being a club everyone admired, instead they wanted to finally win something.
Veterans of four semi-final defeats and a La Liga runners-up spot, the club from the east coast of Spain want a trophy and they had fired a perfectly adequate coach in Javi Calleja, to bring in a specialist Unai ‘three Europa Leagues’ Emery.
Now they stand on the brink again. Hoping this semi-final will be different to the 2004 loss to Valencia in the UEFA Cup, the 2006 loss to Arsenal in the Champions League, the 2011 reverse against Porto in the Europa League, and the 2016 loss to Liverpool in the same competition. Emery is their winning ticket, they hope.
Villarreal are hoping Unai Emery is their golden ticket this season having won three Europa Leagues
By sacking Javi Calleja, it was a statement of ambition from a club that wants to win something
He’s certainly steered them well to the final. There has been barely a hiccup en-route although the league form has perhaps sometimes suffered. With 13 draws in La Liga and a nagging inability to beat teams from the top four they are down in seventh. They could still finish as high as fifth.
It was something Emery mentioned in his press conference on Wednesday though perhaps as much to point out his opponents’ predicament than his team’s.
Among the many nice things he said about Arsenal he let slip the home truth that: ‘Neither us, nor them, have the league route to [next season’s] Champions League open to us.’
Emery now faces his former employers Arsenal in the first leg of their semi-final on Thursday
It wasn’t a dig, in fact when asked about his successor; he described Mikel Arteta and Arsenal as ‘the perfect marriage’.
But it was a reminder that Arsenal are no closer to winning back their place in the top four since cutting short Emery’s 18-month spell in charge. He’s moved on, but he’ll never stop believing that, given longer, he would have been successful at the Emirates.
Emery’s Villarreal have been inconsistent this season in the league but there are plenty of promising signs of progress. Centre-forward Gerard Moreno is having his best season ever and with 20 goals is the top Spanish scorer in La Liga.
The 21-year-old winger Samu Chukwueze is fulfilling his potential, and centre-back Pau Torres has played so well Villarreal will do well to keep Real Madrid from signing him this summer.
Villarreal have been inconsistent this season in the league but there are promising signs
Progress to turn Watford full-back Pervis Estupiñan into the finished product has been frustrated by injury and there was a failure to make Japan international Take Kubo’s loan from Real Madrid work so he was sent back in January.
But still when Villarreal are good they are very good and there is notable improvement well illustrated by that narrow defeat to Barcelona that was so much better than the early season 4-0 at the Camp Nou.
Emery’s traits are unaffected by the highs and lows of his career path. His pride came through on Wednesday in the frequent mentions of Paris Saint-Germain, Sevilla and Valencia. Why would there be emotional scars after Arsenal if he had already left big European teams such as those three? ‘There’s a corner of my heart reserved for all of my ex-clubs,’ he said.
He will also have been tempted to answer Wednesday’s questions in English, just to remind us how he learned the language. In an interview with Sportsmail a year ago, with the wounds still fresh from his sacking, he said he felt that he hadn’t always been cut the slack he deserved.
Gerard Moreno (second right) and Samu Chukwueze (third from right) are in good form
‘Okay so I said “Good Ebening”. I needed to practice my accent so that it was more “Good Evening” than “Good Ebening”. But when I said “Good Ebening” after a good result it was just a joke, when we were losing it was a disgrace.’
Emery remains a quirky coach. He was teased earlier in the season for struggling with the pronunciation of Chukwueze. He has also been targeted by the nation’s top sports impersonator Raul Perez who brilliantly mimics his traffic-cop gesticulations from the technical area.
But as Arsenal manager Arteta was at pains to point out: he has a big heart too.
‘I know a lot of people who work with him and they all say the same thing which is that he’s a fantastic man, a great manager but they highlight the man behind it is as well,’ Arteta said when revealing Emery had called him when he took over from him at the end of 2019.
Emery has moved on from Arsenal but will not stop believing he could have been a success
Emery said that chat had been set up by a mutual friend as opposed to arranged by him, and that it was as much about offering his house in Barnet as anything else. But you can imagine the subject of London accommodation soon being replaced by one of formations and tactics.
Emery remains as intense as ever. Arriving bright and early at training on Wednesday he spotted a player also in early for an interview and took advantage by having a one-to-one session with him to the point where the player’s interview had to be put back.
For all that he has played it down in recent days there is no doubting how much he wants to win this game. ‘It’s true I know some of their players,’ he said. ‘But I have to translate that knowledge to my own players.’
He will have left no stone unturned in trying to do exactly that ahead of Thursday’s game.
Emery also described successor Mikel Arteta and Arsenal as ‘the perfect marriage’