The enigmatic Pierluigi Collina is forever etched in football folklore, but for Everton fans his infamous piercing stare remains a painful snapshot of one bitter summer’s night in eastern Spain.
The stage was set at Villarreal’s ramshackle El Madrigal on 24 August 2005, with over 5000 travelling Evertonians packed to the rafters and a white-hot atmosphere adding to the occasion.
The Toffees, under the auspices of David Moyes, had finished fourth in the 2004/05 Premier League season and booked their place in the Champions League qualification places — this was before a fourth-place finish guaranteed instant access to the group stages.
To get there they would have to bypass Manuel Pellegrini’s Villarreal, but back then the Yellow Submarine were abloom with some of the finest talent in Europe, including Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan and Marcos Senna. Taking a 2-1 deficit from the first leg at Goodison Park, the trip to Spain was always going to be a tall order.
Villarreal strike first, tempering the Toffees
The margin for error was microscopic and before Moyes’ Everton had a chance to compose themselves in the subterranean heat of a summer’s evening in Spain, the hosts struck first blood, breaking the deadlock in only the 21st minute after Juan Pablo Sorin’s deflected effort evaded Nigel Martyn’s reach. 3-1 on aggregate.
The goal itself had little impact on the task at hand. Everton would still have score twice to have a chance of progression, but goals beget confidence and the away side’s motivation seemed sapped, almost subdued by the Argentine’s fortuitous effort, with Villarreal dominating the first half.
Everton claw back, stunning the Submarine
Then came a lifeline. Mikel Arteta — back in his homeland with his flawless hairline — curled the ball into the stanchion from a free-kick in the 69th minute. 3-2, game on. The delicately executed strike had the precision of a Swiss watch, and would surely have caught the attention of a teenage Santi Cazorla, who was on the bench that night for Villarreal — a man whose name is now almost synonymous with that deftness of touch.
From there Everton scented claret, dug their heels in and went for the jugular. With the travelling Merseysiders baying for another goal and Villarreal going off the boil, the narrative shifted in Everton‘s favour and an equaliser seemed inevitable.
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Ferguson’s defining moment, cancelled by Collina
That came late into the game, or so the away side thought. As Arteta whipped in a trademark corner, Duncan Ferguson came steamrolling in and uncorked a bullet header, which prompted a visceral roar from the terraces and sent the travelling fans into a frenzy. Extra time was beckoning.
But, before Ferguson had a chance to embrace his teammates and celebrate what would have been a defining goal in Everton’s history, referee Collina — who had put his retirement on hold for a European swansong — blew his whistle and awarded Villarreal a free-kick for an apparent infringement from Marcus Bent.
Ferguson charged Collina like a raging bull, but that notorious, bulging-eyed stare dismissively put the seething Scot in his place and the Italian official almost mockingly pointed to his ear, as if to indicate he couldn’t understand the striker’s complaints. Ferguson’s haranguing ultimately fell on deaf ears.
The decision looked dubious at the time and the injustice is only amplified upon viewing the incident a second, third and fourth time. You’re probably into the hundreds now if you’re of an Everton persuasion, as the replays suggest Bent is the one impeded. The words rub, salt and wound seem apt here.
The confetti-infused storyline of an elite European run was over from that moment for Everton and Forlan went on to twist the knife, scoring in the closing seconds to make it 3-1 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate. Villarreal through to the group stages, Everton demoted to the UEFA Cup.
A seething Moyes, sympathetic Forlan
In the immediate aftermath the frustration was palpable in Moyes, with the Scot offering a tirade almost out of character with his typically phlegmatic disposition.
“I was told the referees would be the same in Europe as in England but I don’t think that was the case,” Moyes said at the time.
“We thought we would get the second goal and we thought it was coming. I’m really pleased with the players – no problem about that.
“We are disappointed to be out of the Champions League, but we must not forget what an achievement it was to get there in the first place.”
Forlan was also quick to acknowledge that the disallowed goal changed the complexion of the game, but even he couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause of Collina’s whistle.
He admitted: “That disallowed goal was really helpful for us.
“We knew it would be a difficult game, but I didn’t see what happened with the disallowed goal. Maybe it was pushing or something.”
The Uruguayan’s admission remains scant consolation for Everton fans, while hindsight is a useless commodity when your football dream has been shattered.
Indeed, it was a game soaked in drama, and perhaps underpins the necessity of VAR in the modern game, though at the time there was no better man to handle such an intense evening of European football than Collina, a referee with a hawk’s eye for detail and an authoritative approach.
Everton nurse the wounds
The defeat almost functioned as a catalyst for Everton’s ensuing nosedive. The club went on to suffer a humiliating defeat to Dinamo Bucuresti in the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds, losing 5-1 in the first leg, while also enduring a barren autumnal run, which culminated in the club lying bottom of the league at one stage and caught in the riptide of a six-game losing streak.
By the end of December Everton had won just five out of 19 Premier League games. Bill Kenwright stuck with Moyes and the Toffees recovered to finish 11th that season, but the physiological scars from that night in Spain stood prominently on the surface, and even to this day the name ‘Collina’ remains taboo among some quarters of Merseyside.
What was a fairytale season in 2004/05, a classic underdog story, with Moyes galvanising Everton and breaking the top four ceiling, turned into a nightmare 2005/06 campaign, a sour footnote in the club’s annals.
A frustration exacerbated by external forces
To make matters worse for Everton fans, their traditional rivals Liverpool were to be granted a special exemption by UEFA and automatically included in the first qualification round as holders, despite finishing fifth and below the Toffees for the 2004/05 campaign.
The ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ was hard enough to watch for Evertonians who harboured aspirations of their own ‘miracle’ when their Champions League campaign kicked off, but to see Liverpool in the group stages come September and themselves back outside the elite only increased the sense of injustice.
What’s more, Villarreal went on to reach the semi-finals, losing 1-0 to Arsenal in the penultimate round. There will surely forever be a feeling of ‘that could have been us’.
Pellegrini was blessed with an embarrassment of riches during his stint at Villarreal and his 2005/06 side will go down in the club’s history as one of the finest ever to grace the turf. It had creative virtuosity, midfield sophistication and a glut of dynamism, personified by the elegance of Senna.
Substitutes: Jan Kromkamp (15), Alessio Tacchinardi (82).
Moyes deserves huge credit for carefully crafting a Champions League squad with very little resources in comparison to the proverbial big boys. A combination of academy products, ageing stars, loan signings and shrewd acquisitions came together harmoniously to create a side that would go on to define the Moyes era at Goodison Park.
Substitutes: Leon Osman (57), James McFadden (79)