When a giant falls on a big European night, there is usually no sweeter feeling for neutral and rival fans alike. In the aftermath of Villarreal’s monumental two-legged triumph over German juggernaut Bayern Munich last night, the focus is once again directed at manager Unai Emery as his tradition of success in Europe.
The 2-1 aggregate win perpetrated by El Submarino Amarillo will surely go down as one of the greatest upsets in Champions League history after a side of Bayern’s pedigree both in the Bundesliga and on the continent was checked. Villarreal has – now – only reached the semi-finals of Europe’s top club competition for just the second time in its young storyline in top-flight football which began back in 1998-99, and Emery deserves an immeasurable amount of credit for their recent achievements.
— Villarreal CF English (@VillarrealCFen) April 12, 2022
And the data points associated with the two-legged shock speak to the level of shock that gripped dedicated supports and neutral onlookers alike. Across both legs, Bayern dominated possession (62.5%) while registering three times the amount of attempts on goal (45 – 15), but did only manage just eight shots on frame. However, Emery and his men bucked the data trend after scoring from both of their efforts that managed to successfully find their way to German international stalwart Manuel Neuer. To say the result was a shock would hardly do it justice.
Villarreal fueled by ‘lack of respect’
Do not tell that to veteran central midfielder Dani Parejo, however. The Coslada-native did not mince words regarding how he and his clubmates utilized a lack of respect shown by Bayern boss Julian Nagelsmann as fuel to trump one of the biggest names in club football.
“When the draw was made and they got Villarreal, their coach, whom I don’t know, disrespected not only Villarreal but also football by saying he wanted to settle the tie in the first leg.”
“It was a lack of respect towards us. Sometimes when you spit up it falls on your face.”
— Archie Rhind-Tutt (@archiert1) April 12, 2022
That same sentiment was shared by Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić who was interviewed live during the Champions League quarterfinal draw and was seen chuckling to himself as he answered with his thoughts on being drawn against Emery and his Villarreal side.
In truth, Parejo was right on the money in his assessment as well. Bayern has long been one of the more arrogant clubs in Europe and certainly maintains that image off and on the pitch on the domestic front despite much of the image building they have perpetrated over the years, namely when they helped rescue Borussia Dortmund from financial ruin.
But despite the good deeds, the air of invincibility that has perpetually gripped the Bavarian standard-bearers came home to roost when they clashed with one of the most capable managers in knockout football in Unai Emery, who deserves an immense level of praise for his ability to marshal an outfit that contains quite a few Premier League “outcasts” the likes of Francis Coquelin, Serge Aurier, Alberto Moreno, and Étienne Capoue.
Unai Emery; European hegemon
Though the feeling of disrespect served as fuel to drive Villarreal forward, so much of the story must – correctly – be directed at Unai Emery after he once again has guided yet another club to the latter stages of a European tournament.
Emery has already brought continental success to the Estadio de la Cerámica when he led Villarreal to their first-ever major honor after dispatching Manchester United on penalties in the final of the Europa League in another episode of giant-killing that has now become commonplace on his managerial CV, regardless of which touchline he is patrolling.
To get to Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Red Devils, Emery first had to trump former employers Arsenal in the semi-finals after comfortably dispatching Dinamo Zagreb, Dynamo Kyiv, and Red Bull Salzburg in the previous rounds. But trumping a former adversary and a former employer – the top biggest clubs left in the competition – was vindication for a man who some feel was unjustifiably removed from his post at the Emirates before Arsenal hired Mikel Arteta.
And when it comes to the Europa League, Emery is certainly a paragon of success in Europe’s “second” club competition across the entirety of his career, winning the competition four times in eight seasons and netting a trio of consecutive competition wins while at the helm of fellow La Liga outfit Sevilla before eventually reaching the final with Arsenal three seasons later only to be put to the sword by Premier League rivals Chelsea.
His overall record in the competition is sublime, however, despite the impressive trophy haul as the Hondarribia-native has registered a record of 65-22-13 across Europa League play, a record which includes four wins from four qualifying matches. And perhaps most impressively, in seven of his eight seasons featuring in the competition, he has reached at least the quarterfinals on every single occasion.
But when it comes to the Champions League, his record is much less impressive and the current campaign is the only occasion where he has guided his charge past the Round of 16 despite managing French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain for two seasons from 2016-17 and has only mustered a record of 22-11-18 along the way; .63 points/match lower than his record in the Europa League.
Perhaps the biggest criticism has been his inability to transition his continental success into tangible league results regardless of if it has been in Spain, Russia, France, or England despite the stature of clubs like Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain.
Now in his 16th season in top-flight club management, Emery has only managed to guide a club into a top-four place on five occasions. Two of those – expectedly – came from his days in the French capital, while another three during his time with Valencia.
It is perhaps ironic that with the clubs he has had the most success with on the European front – Sevilla and Villarreal – he has never managed a league finish higher than fifth, assuming Villarreal does not manage to climb two places between now and the end of the current La Liga season.
Still and yet, a specialist in European success like Unai Emery certainly has value. A place on the continental landscape for clubs that, though may not be built for domestic success at the top of the footballing pyramid, there must always be a swan song or an underdog story. In that light, there are few better than him.