Pau Torres’ close-range shot had barely crossed the goal line when Villarreal coach Unai Emery started to celebrate by sprinting in a circle by the bench. (More Football News)
The 85th-minute goal against Juventus in Turin gave the visitors a two-goal lead and practically sealed Villarreal’s spot in the quarterfinals of the Champions League on Wednesday.
It was the first time Emery made it past the last 16 in the top European competition, and it secured three Spanish clubs in the quarterfinals for the first time after three lean seasons for a country which holds a record 18 European titles between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
“We are proud to be able to represent Spanish soccer well,” Emery said. “We want to earn our own space and gain recognition.”
Emery struggled in the Champions League in the past but Spanish clubs have traditionally fared well in the competition, with three Spanish teams reaching the last eight in six straight seasons from 2013-18. Only Barcelona made it to the quarterfinals in 2019, and the Catalan club was joined by Atlético Madrid in 2020 before Madrid became the sole Spanish representative in the last eight last season.
The outlook was grim when the draw for this year’s round of 16 was completed in December, with all three Spanish clubs not entering as favorites.
It looked even worse after Madrid was outplayed by Paris Saint-Germain and lost the first leg in France 1-0. The team also conceded early in the second leg in Madrid, but the 13-time European champions pulled off a stunning comeback with Karim Benzema scoring a hat trick in less than 20 minutes in the second half in a 3-1 win at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium last week.
Atlético conceded a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw at home against Manchester United before a great defensive performance helped it hold on to a 1-0 win in England on Tuesday. Villarreal and Juventus also drew 1-1 in the first leg before the Spaniards earned the surprising 3-0 win in Italy.
There was some criticism of how the Spanish clubs played, with Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri saying Villarreal focused only on defending and “didn’t even try” to play in attack in the second half. Man United coach Ralf Rangnick accused Atlético of trying to waste time whenever possible and said its players were always on the ground.
“We had a game plan,” Emery said. “We knew there’d be tough moments.”
There are also three English teams in this year’s quarterfinals, as it happened a season ago. Defending champion Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City advanced this year along with German club Bayern Munich and Portuguese team Benfica.
Madrid, Liverpool, Bayern and Benfica are also past European champions, while Atlético and Man City have made it to the final. Villarreal — the modest club based in a city of about 50,000 in southern Spain — went as far as the semifinals in 2006. It reached the last eight three years later, when it was eliminated by Arsenal.
Emery, who previously coached Valencia, Sevilla, PSG and Arsenal, had failed in his previous three attempts to get past the round of 16 in the Champions League. He did win three consecutive Europa League titles with Sevilla from 2014-16 and another with Villarreal last season, beating Man United.
“All rivals are going to be difficult now but it will be another great opportunity for us,” said Emery, who coached Arsenal for two seasons before joining the Spanish club in 2020.
The draw for this year’s Champions League quarterfinals will be Friday.