Football Features

Combined XI: Villarreal’s best stars of the 21st Century featuring Cazorla and Riquelme

By Matt Clark, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 10:15, 21 February 2022

Villarreal have seen their fair share of brilliant players this century.

From tough-tackling centre-backs to majestic midfielders to lethal frontmen, there is surely something for everyone to appreciate in the Yellow Submarine across the last two decades.

A club hailing from the small town of Vila-real, about an hour north of Valencia, they have punched above their weight since the turn of the century, were one penalty away from a Champions League final, and finally became champions of the Europa League so memorably last season.

This combined XI will feature flavourings from their greatest sides of the century, as well as some players who may have made their name elsewhere but either broke through at the club, or graced it in the autumn of their careers. The formation will be an unconventional 3-5-2 to get maximum value for the plethora of maestros in midfield in particular.

Goalkeeper: Pepe Reina

Villarreal appearances: 147

A product of La Masia in the same generation as Mikel Arteta, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, Reina made his breakthrough at Villarreal. Spending three seasons with the club, winning two Intertoto Cups in the process, his impressive agility and shot-stopping convinced Rafa Benítez to sign him in 2005. He was a fan-favourite at Anfield, and after almost 400 appearances there, left for Napoli. He has also played for Milan and Bayern Munich in his long career, as well as being part of the historic Spain squad for their golden era winning the World Cup and two European championships.

Centre-back: Juliano Belletti

Villarreal appearances: 80

Villarreal was Belletti’s first taste of European football, and he took to it like a duck to water. His marauding runs down the right were typical of a Brazilian full-back, but his defensive acumen was equally proficient. He enjoyed multiple titles at Barcelona and then Chelsea, winning two La Liga titles, the Premier League, two Supercopas de España, two FA Cups and the Community Shield. But of course, he is best known for scoring the winner in the 2006 Champions League final in Paris. Remarkably it was his only goal with Barcelona, but he did enjoy more following his move to London including a handful of rockets.

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Centre-back: Raúl Albiol

Villarreal appearances: 113

The first member of the current side in this XI, Albiol is a defensive titan for the Yellow Submarine. Similar to Reina, much of his club career has coincided with that of Benítez, playing for him at Valencia and Napoli. Winning trophies at almost every club he has played at, he is a steady and composed presence at the back. With over 50 caps for Spain, he is undoubtedly content with his legacy, but he could arguably have been an ever-present were it not for Puyol, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué being around concurrently.

Centre-back: Diego Godín

Villarreal appearances: 116

Signed by Manuel Pellegrini in 2007, the Uruguayan warrior spent three seasons at the club until Atleti took him to Madrid. The rest, as they say, is history. Winning eight trophies with Los Rojiblancos, he was Diego Simeone’s general on the pitch, and scored one of the most iconic goals in La Liga this century. The equaliser at Camp Nou to win the title for Atleti in 2014 will go down in history as the moment the duopoly was broken. One of the greatest defenders of the century, and still under-appreciated by many, he deserves his spot here.

Right-winger: Gerard Moreno

Villarreal appearances: 204

This inclusion needs no introduction. An academy product who left and then returned, Gerard Moreno is Villarreal’s talisman in chief and the leader of their attack. He recently became their all-time record scorer, and scored in the Europa League final as the club won the first major trophy in their history. A back-to-back Zarra trophy winner for the leading Spanish scorer in La Liga, he is in Luis Enrique’s new-look Spain setup and is closing in on a century of goals for Villarreal. A modern great.

Central midfielder: Santi Cazorla

Villarreal appearances: 329

Another diminutive midfielder who conquered the Premier League, everybody loves Santi. Despite three separate spells at the club, as well as being a part of that Pellegrini Málaga side, Cazorla undoubtedly enjoyed the prime of his career in north London. While his trophy cabinet is under-filled for a player of his ability and talent, Cazorla’s appeal is as much about his character and personality as his tremendous ability and wand of a left foot. Overcoming his injury hell to be able to play again, suffering tears as Villarreal fought relegation, Santi truly is one of the good guys.

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Central midfielder: Rodri

Villarreal appearances: 84

Even at just 25, it is clear that Rodri has played his best football away from the club, but he is another who owes much of his development to the Yellow Submarine. Coming through the youth system at Atleti, he joined Villarreal at 17 before breaking through. Atleti quickly brought him back, but just one year later, Pep Guardiola and Manchester City came calling. Now a regular in the City side, he has also featured in every Spain squad since the 2018 World Cup. One for the present and for the future.

Central midfielder: Juan Román Riquelme

Villarreal appearances: 141

Words cannot possibly do justice to the magisterial ability of Riquelme. A classic Argentine No. 10, he was idolised at Villarreal, and cruelly had his penalty saved in the Champions League semi-final. The way he moved the ball, his quality in possession, and his appreciation of finding space, Riquelme is probably the most technically-gifted player Villarreal have ever had. Now back on the board at his beloved Boca, his story is one loved by football romantics. El Ultimo Diez.

Left-winger: Robert Pires

Villarreal appearances: 129

The French wing wizard definitely falls into the category of playing in the autumn of his career at Villarreal, but what a career it was. An invincible Premier League champion, World Cup and Euros winner with France, his four years with the Yellow Submarine are still remembered fondly. Controlling midfield alongside Cazorla, setting up chances for Giuseppe Rossi, it was pure football.

Forward: Giuseppe Rossi

Villarreal appearances: 191

The aforementioned Italian was a born goalscorer. After breaking out at Manchester United, it was Villarreal where he settled best. Until Gerard Moreno recently broke it, Rossi was the club’s record goalscorer with 82 in 192 appearances. No Italian has scored more La Liga goals than him, and he won the Olympic Golden Boot in 2008 in a tournament including Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Ronaldinho. Not bad at all.

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Forward: Diego Forlán

Villarreal appearances: 123

Last but by no means least is this legendary Uruguayan hitman. Another signed by Pellegrini and coming from Old Trafford, Forlán was another hero for the Yellow Submarine faithful. In 2004/05 he scored 25 goals in 38 La Liga matches to win the Pichichi and the European Golden Shoe, the only Villarreal player to win those awards.

Following his move to Atleti, his goalscoring kicked up the gears. He repeated his Pichichi-Golden Shoe double in 2009, just before the Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo domination. His tally of 32 in 2008/09 was the highest of the century at the time and since Ronaldo in 1997. Added together with his exploits on the international stage, Forlán is a guarantee in this XI.

Honourable mentions:

Marcos Senna and Mario Gaspar – Both loyal servants to the club, Senna in particular is a harsh omission, given his integral role in Spain’s Euro 2008 success.

Article produced by Matt Clark in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown