Forget Pep Guardiola; Unai Emery is the Spanish boss wowing Europe


Unai Emery is a talented and meticulous football manager, but his teams’ abilities tend to come in bursts. When it comes to the elite managerial circle, failing to transform Arsenal and fully deliver to Paris Saint Germain has steered him away from names like Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp. With his Villarreal side making their way in Europe, that may not be the case anymore.

Villarreal picked up a memorable 1-0 victory over Bayern Munich to steal the lead ahead of the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final. Arnaut Danjuma, the club’s record signing at around 25 million euros ($27 million), scored the precious goal on a disappointing night for Robert Lewandowski and his teammates in Castellón.

Emery’s ideas were not enough to make Arsenal a real force. The London club have been two steps forward and one step back for some time now, so Emery being the answer to all their problems was a little off the mark. The team lacked harmony, with Mesut Özil’s undeniable talent retired at the time, so there were understandable doubts. Add in a decisive near miss in a Europa League final against Chelsea, and a promising project began to unfold.

In another high-stakes environment, Emery failed to do what everyone in Paris eluded; win the Champions League trophy. When the cup goes through a row of hands at the end of May this year, Lionel Messi won’t touch it, nor will Kylian Mbappé and Neymar. Nonetheless, the team’s colossal downfall – revealed by a stunning result in which Barcelona overturned a 4-0 deficit to win against Emery’s men – was a particularly embarrassing moment at the helm and something he had to accept.

And that makes his current position so commendable; his back, you might say. Whatever happens against Bayern’s much-loved outfit in the second Champions League clash, Villarreal are a new force with him in charge. After winning the Europa League last season and starting this La Liga season rather poorly, his moment of glory – and perhaps Villarreal’s – seemed to have come and gone. But no not at all. Emery recovered from his setbacks to foster a winning mentality on a team competing for silverware.

Ranking him against fellow countrymen Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone is tough. Their teams are also in contention for Europe’s top prize, but under different pressures. Manchester City have never won the Champions League, a burden that Guardiola and his extraordinary footballing spirit have yet to overcome in England, at least. Despite being La Liga champions, Atlético Madrid – who are yet to win – play the dark horse well but know their abilities. Villarreal, in truth, are the real underdogs. And yet, despite City and Atlético’s superior play and memorable Champions League nights, there are good reasons for Emery to be the most successful in Europe and with an even chance on this occasion.

Winning a Europa League and a Champions League in back-to-back seasons would be extraordinary by any team’s standards, especially for a club that has evolved from relative obscurity in recent years. Villarreal work best in a fluid attacking system, where auxiliary forwards like wingers Arnaut Danjuma and youngster Yéremy Pino contribute goals while Pau Torres leads for example at the back. When they click, you see a smooth, attacking eleven. He’s been missing at times this season, the Yellow Submarine hovering just above the league mid-table, but performances in Europe have more than mitigated that shortcoming.

Emery’s teams are adapting well to European competition and he has won the Europa League four times, including three with Sevilla. Manchester City’s two-legged quarter-final with Atlético sells as a battle of two footballing greats in Guardiola and Simeone. Still, a Villarreal win over Bayern would blow the winner of this clash out of the water. Emery has performed better at ambitious clubs without the exorbitant expectations of top teams. He is an ideal match for Villarreal and will now be happy to have stayed after renewed interest from the Premier League at the start of this campaign.

The best thing is that it can hardly fail. Villarreal have exceeded expectations in the Champions League no matter what happens next. Besides the results themselves, perhaps the most impressive thing is the team’s ambition to achieve more. Away in Turin against Juventus, a goal was good. In the end, he came away with three to continue his pursuit convincingly. It’s a sign of a hungry and ambitious team in good hands. Danjuma, for his part, is not intimidated. For him, winning the biggest prize is the only goal.


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