Fairytale turns into nightmare for Villarreal
Once upon a time they were the fairytale team of La Liga. You didn't need to know exactly where Villarreal was to have read at least once during their heroic journey to the Champions League semi-finals in 2006 that you could fit the town's entire population of around 45,000 inside any number of top European grounds.
That and the fact that they were owned and bankrolled by a bathrooms magnate gave them the charm of an English FA Cup underdog.
At home they often outplayed Real Madrid and Barcelona; abroad they took on Europe's elite -- most famously in 2006 when, if Juan Roman Riquelme had scored from the penalty spot, they would have taken Arsenal to extra-time in the last four of the Champions League.
Now they are bottom of Champions League Group A and face Manchester City tonight with few home comforts to cheer them ahead of such a must-win European game.
There is currently another ugly duckling shaking up La Liga, in the shape of their east-coast neighbours Levante who, despite having the league's smallest budget and oldest squad, are joint top. Villarreal are 13th and on the slide.
The club built on the ceramics fortune of Fernando Roig have been hit hard by the construction industry crash and no longer have the money to bring in big signings.
They are a long way from the financial mire that threatens so many of Spain's clubs and have excellent facilities along with the second best youth system in the country behind Barca's La Masia.
But this summer they were helpless to prevent their most influential player, Santi Cazorla, leaving to join oil-rich Malaga and, having failed to adequately replace him, they are just two points from the drop zone with just one win and only seven goals in as many games.
No wonder club president Roig was one of the most vocal at the start of the season when an all-too short-lived campaign to share television money more fairly was at its most vocal.
"Either we change things or we are killing football," he said. "I give myself another three or four years at this."
Roig walking away would be disastrous for a club whose stadium holds just 25,000 and whose measly share of television money is around €25m -- over €90m less than Barca and Real Madrid.
A player who sums up the frustration at not being able to push on and really challenge the big clubs domestically and in Europe is Giuseppe Rossi.
The Italian international needs just one more goal in the famous yellow shirt to go past Diego Forlan and become the club's all-time top scorer. Both are tied on 54 goals -- Forlan's coming in just three seasons but with better players around him.
Rossi has three goals so far in what is his fifth season at the club.
Villarreal's 24-year-old striker could have left the club himself in the summer with Barcelona interested. Roig resisted and Barca turned to Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez instead leaving Rossi to stew on what might have been.
All things considered, Rossi (pictured below) has applied himself admirably but where once there was Spain international Cazorla pulling the strings behind him there are now players such as Javier Camucas and Jonathan de Guzman.
The hard-working Camucas helped keep Osasuna up last season and the 24-year-old Canadian international De Guzman has potential, but neither will save a Champions League campaign ill-fated from the day of the draw which threw Villarreal in with City, Bayern Munich and Napoli.
Tonight with Camucas carrying a knock and De Guzman still not convincing, the onus will be on Borja Valero to orchestrate from midfield. The former Real Madrid youth-teamer once had a spell at West Brom and will be the next out of the door along with Rossi if Villarreal have to go on selling.
They have scored only once away all season and Rossi's job is made more difficult by injuries to strikers Marco Ruben and Nilmar that will force coach Juan Carlos Garrido to play with one striker and a five-man midfield.
Garrido, too, is under pressure with voices being raised in the board room to suggest his qualities lie in coaching not managing.
His lot is not to be envied -- keeping up with Real Madrid and Barcelona with ever-decreasing funds, while trying to keep his team in Champions League contention tonight against the richest club in the competition. (© Independent News Service)