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Football

Villarreal out to banish European semi-final curse

The 'Yellow Submarine' are looking to reach their first European final at the fourth attempt

If Villarreal reach their first European final at the fourth attempt it will be because of a carefully cultivated blend of home-grown players and intelligent purchases.

No one believes they have an easy task in their Europa league semi-final against Liverpool, one of the game’s giants with a clutch of European silverware in their trophy cabinet.

But the Spanish side’s appearance in the last four at El Madrigal on Thursday vindicates the 19-year strategy of their Valencia-born billionaire president Fernando Roig.

Last year the club reinvested the 55.5 million euros they received from high-profile sales, including Gabriel Paulista to Arsenal and Luciano Vietto to Atletico Madrid to set up them up for the new season.

They brought in former Spain striker Roberto Soldado for 10 million euros and Cedric Bakambu for seven million, with the Congolese their top scorer on 22 goals in all competitions.

The newcomers have blended with regulars Bruno Soriano, Mario Gaspar, Jaume Costa and Manu Trigueros, who all came through the academy, the fruit of a 42 million euro investment in the youth structure by Roig when he first assumed control.

With Villarreal on course for a return to the Champions League next season – they are four points clear in fourth place in La Liga with three games left – the mix looks potent for a team who have spent just 16 of their 93 years in the top flight.

However, the club’s focus this week is on beating five-time European champions Liverpool and, having come so close to reaching a major continental final in 2004, 2006 and 2011, Villarreal are determined to finally seize the moment.

REALLY EXCITED

“This club has got close several times and couldn’t do it in the end, so we are really excited about playing this semi-final and above all reaching the final,” said midfielder Denis Suarez.

“We’re up against a historic opponent and that makes it extra special, it’s a great stage for the club and for the players.”

In 2004 they lost a UEFA Cup semi-final 1-0 on aggregate to neighbours Valencia after a controversial penalty, and were denied a place in the 2006 Champions League final by Arsenal by the same score, Juan Roman Riquelme missing a late spot kick.

However, they were convincingly beaten 7-4 on aggregate by eventual Europa League winners FC Porto in the last four in 2011, a result which put the team on a downward spiral that would culminate in relegation little more than a year later.

Roig, who took over Villarreal in 1997 when they were struggling in the second division and had a stadium holding just 3,500 spectators, took responsibility for the downturn.

The president, who made his fortune through the Pamesa ceramics business, sold a 2.4 percent stake in the Mercadona supermarket chain he owns with his brothers to alleviate the burden of the club’s 138 million euro debt.

The move helped Villarreal adapt to life in the second tier and keep key players like Spain internationals Soriano and Gaspar. Coach Marcelino got them promoted immediately and they qualified for the Europa League in their first season back.

Their stadium now has a capacity of 24,890, compared with the 51,000 inhabitants of Vila-real, the second smallest town after Monte Carlo to send a team to the Champions League semi-finals, and it will definitely be rocking on Thursday.

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