The 13th of May 2012 is a date that all Villarreal supporters long to forget. With the clock winding down on a miserable season, the ‘Yellow Submarine’ looked set to survive an improbable relegation by the skin of their teeth only for an unlikely series of events to send them spiralling down into the Segunda Division.
Radamel Falcao’s 88th minute winner for Atletico Madrid at El Madrigal, combined with activity elsewhere, left Spanish football’s 21st century success story reflecting on its darkest hour.
This was a Villarreal side that contained the likes of Marcos Senna, Borja Valero and Bruno Soriano, all of whom had been capped by Spain within the previous two years, during the very peak of La Roja’s golden era. They were joined by Argentine internationals Mateo Musacchio and Marco Ruben as well as Colombian centre-back Cristián Zapata.
It was a team that for virtually the entirety of the 2011/12 season was branded ‘too good to go down’.
Approaching seven years on from the relegation that should never have happened, El Madrigal may now be the Estadio de la Cerámica, but few can escape the sense that history is in danger of repeating itself.
At the midway point in the 2018/19 campaign, a Villarreal side that is not short on individual quality, finds itself languishing in 19th, four points shy of safety.
Again this is a relegation battle that has come almost entirely out of the blue. The Villarreal side that went down in 2012 had finished in the top eight for eight years running and competed in that season’s Champions League following a top four finish the previous year. This current crop has five straight top six finishes behind them and will need to juggle a battle for safety with Europa League football come February.
The conditions of the league also feel ominously similar from a Villarreal perspective. Relegated with 41 points in 2012, this is again shaping up to be a season where teams may need to hit a similar mark to reach safety.
Last term 30 points would have been enough for survival but Huesca aside, there are no clubs that look doomed to the drop at the halfway stage. The teams directly above the relegation zone include Celta Vigo and Athletic Bilbao, both of whom would also have banked on having enough quality to avoid any form of relegation struggle.
The parallels don’t end there. Villarreal opted to make a coaching switch just before Christmas in the ill-fated 2011-12 campaign with José Francisco Molina replacing Juan Carlos Garrido when the Yellow Submarine were 17th in the table. This term, a switch was also made in December with Javier Calleja sacked in favour of Luis Garcia with Villarreal again in 17th place.
Early results suggest Garcia could end up going the same way as Molina, who would only last three months in the role before the board opted to bring in Miguel Ángel Lotina to lead an ultimately unsuccessful late salvage act.
Villarreal’s four league games so far under Garcia have yielded no wins and just three points. They remain stuck on just three wins all season in La Liga, just one of which has come at the Ceramica. Much-like the 2011/12 side though, this is a Villarreal squad that on paper has enough quality to shoot up a congested league in the second half of the season.
While they’ve lacked balance and a clear philosophy at times, it is a midfield packed with quality. In Pablo Fornals and Samuel Chukwueze they have two of La Liga’s brightest young talents.
The former has been Villarreal’s star performer this term while 19 year-old Chukwueze has burst onto the scene over the past couple of months, giving Marcelo an evening to forget in Villarreal’s opening game of 2019 against Real Madrid.
Manu Trigueros has been a solid figure in the heart of the Villarreal midfield for many years now while Santiago Caseres has shown glimpses of his promise.
Throw into the mix new signing Vicente Iborra not to mention veteran Santi Cazorla and they have players that should be capable of dictating football matches against most teams in the Spanish top flight.
Add to that Sergio Asenjo, one of the most reliable keepers in La Liga and a €25 million striker in the shape of Gerard Moreno and it becomes even more difficult to fathom just why Villarreal are only one place off the bottom at the midway point in the campaign.
If Luis Garcia’s men fail to find the winning formula soon, this fear that history could repeat itself will only gain traction.
Following their relegation in 2012, many wondered whether that was it for the Villarreal fairytale. It seemed illogical that a team from an unremarkable town of just 50,000 people could ever get back to the dizzy heights of European Semi-Finals and consistently competing with the Spanish giants.
Those fears were quickly allayed. With Marcelino at the helm, Villarreal soon re-established themselves amongst the upper echelons of Spanish football, with an immediate return to the top flight and a 6th place finish in their first season back in the Primera Division.
They’ve not dropped out of the top six since, a feat which would be almost as remarkable as their initial rise from the fourth tier to the top flight in the 1990’s, were it not for the fact they now boast one of La Liga’s largest budgets.
While they may not be ‘a big club’ in a traditional sense, Villarreal have more financial muscle and a much more professional set-up than most sides in the Primera Division.
They also have one of Spain’s best youth academies and relegation is something they simply wouldn’t have even considered as a possibility this term.
Were they to ultimately make the plunge, it would have to rank as the most surprising relegation from La Liga since that fateful day in May 2012 when Falcao’s goal silenced El Madrigal.
With the Segunda Division packed with big clubs these days, they might not find it so easy to bounce back.