The Villarreal miracle: How have a team of Premier League cast-offs reached the Champions League semi-finals?

Etienne Capoue Arnaut Danjuma Villarreal 2021-22Getty Images

When Villarreal line up for the Champions League anthem at Anfield on Wednesday, and the television camera pans across their players’ faces, many will be recognisable to regular Premier League viewers.

Unai Emery’s Yellow Submarine has been propelled to the semi-finals by several players who have plied their trade in England’s top flight, many of whom struggled there.

While the team has a Spanish spine, from striker Gerard Moreno to midfielder Dani Parejo and centre-back Pau Torres, several of those around them are a hodgepodge mix of Premier League cast-offs, forged into a cohesive unit on Spain’s east coast.

It is a tight ship which has seen off Juventus and Bayern Munich to reach the Champions League’s business end, and will now face off against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Tottenham alone are highly represented in the Villarreal squad, with Giovani Lo Celso on loan, while Serge Aurier, Etienne Capoue and Juan Foyth all have history in north London.

So too does midfield battler Francis Coquelin, at Arsenal, while arguably the Groguets’ (Yellows, in Valenciano) player of the season, Arnaut Danjuma, arrived from Bournemouth, in the Championship.

Alberto Moreno, sadly out with a long-term injury, was having a fine campaign and will be a big miss against his former side, Liverpool.

Even goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli was Premier League property at one point, with Manchester City buying him from Deportivo Maldonado, although they loaned him to Real Sociedad and he never featured for the English side.

Vicente Iborra, meanwhile, spent two seasons with Leicester City, while Pervis Estupinan was a Watford player for four seasons, all of which he spent on loan in Spain at different clubs before Villarreal bought him in 2020.

It is Netherlands forward Danjuma, though, who has had the biggest impact, especially with Gerard Moreno troubled by injury problems, and in a hybrid half-winger, half-striker role, has been on fire in recent weeks.

He has netted six times in 10 Champions League games, including against Juventus and Bayern, as well as terrorising Manchester United at Old Trafford, even as Villarreal were narrowly beaten.

“If we look at what I’ve done this season, it’s quite fair and factual to say I’m among the best wingers in the world,” he told The Guardian in a recent interview. Capable of stretching the pitch and regularly creating his own chances, it is hard to disagree.

Villarreal paid €25 million (£21m/$29m) for the winger, so his fine performances have not been totally unexpected, even though he has surpassed expectations, leading to interest from Liverpool in a possible transfer.

A lot of the club’s other Premier League misfits came at a much lower cost but have also played key roles this season, including Capoue.

The French midfielder, 33, is enjoying an Indian summer in his career, to the point where there is some clamour for him to be included in Didier Deschamps’ squad for the 2022 World Cup.

Capoue has not featured for Les Bleus since 2013, having previously won seven international caps, with one goal, against Belarus in 2012.

“I’m not on the station platform waiting for it,” Capoue told L’Equipe, surprised by the discussion. “I really don't think about it, I’m fulfilled in my life. If one day, I see my name on the list, it would be a huge surprise.”

The defensive midfielder has, however, played 37 times this season, reaching 2,943 minutes, the fifth-most of any player at the club in 2021-22, and is not slowing down.

Capoue struggled to make the step up to Tottenham from Toulouse after moving to White Hart Lane in 2013 as one of the seven signings the club made with the money raised following the sale of Gareth Bale.

But he did eventually find a home in England at Watford in 2015, where he stayed until the January 2021 transfer window.

Villarreal took him from the Championship to European football and Capoue rewarded them with a Man-of-the-Match worthy display in the Europa League final, as they beat Manchester United on penalties.

Etienne Capoue Villarreal GFX
Getty/GOAL

The other former Spurs players have also impressed this season in Foyth, Aurier and Lo Celso, and coach Emery thinks they made the right decision to come to Spain.

"Tottenham is also a very big club, but here they could win things," he told The Athletic. "Tottenham has been years without winning anything, no trophies."

Lo Celso appeared sporadically for Spurs in the first half of the season before Villarreal eagerly brought him into the side on loan in January, and he has fitted like a glove back in La Liga.

Emery is keen to bring the 25-year-old in permanently this summer, with Lo Celso having played a key role in the goal that secured Villarreal’s passage to the semi-finals.

It was his through ball that Gerard Moreno fed to goalscorer Samu Chukwueze, a key contribution to cap a sparkling performance from the Argentina international.

Gio Lo Celso Villarreal quote GFX
Getty/GOAL

Lo Celso may be used higher up the pitch against Liverpool, with Gerard Moreno unlikely to be fit for the clash on Wednesday night on Merseyside.

Foyth has been a regular at right-back, shading out his competition in Aurier. Rulli, meanwhile, has dislodged Sergio Asenjo in goal, while Iborra offers able back up in midfield with Emery rotating around the Champions League games, and Coquelin battled well against Bayern in both legs.

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Were it not for a troublesome Achilles tendon issue, Coquelin would have featured more this season and Emery was boosted by the former Arsenal midfielder’s return to training on Saturday.

He could be a key part of Emery’s plan to combat Liverpool’s midfield, shutting down the glittering Thiago Alcantara. He, and team-mate Parejo, arrived from Valencia when Los Che’s financial troubles meant they sold off some key players for cut-price fees in the summer of 2020.

Alone, Villarreal’s scattered Premier League players may have lacked consistency and significant success, but together, they have reached new ground, with Liverpool standing between them and a first Champions League final.