Jose Francisco Molina Begins Villarreal Salvage Job with Win over Sporting Gijon
After nearly a decade of upsetting the odds, by torpedoing bigger clubs in Spain and across Europe, Villarreal—the Yellow Submarine—have been taking on water all season.
On Monday they beat fellow strugglers Sporting Gijon 3-0 at home, ending a run of 10 matches in all competitions without a win.
That dire spell saw Juan Carlos Garrido removed as coach, with Jose Francisco Molina promoted from his role with the club’s reserves on December 22.
The arrival of Molina, a former goalkeeper with Atletico Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna, looked set to herald an instant improvement, as Villarreal led Valencia 2-0 at home in his first league match in charge.
But they conceded twice, including an 87th-minute equaliser, as the winless run continued, followed by a 3-0 loss away to Atletico.
On Monday the El Madrigal faithful, so used to seeing their team match it with the best in Europe, finally had a reason to smile in 2011/12.
It took moments of brilliance from Marco Ruben, Borja Valero and Bruno to seal the points, their well-taken goals lighting up an otherwise unremarkable affair.
The long-awaited victory saw Villarreal climb above Sporting and Granada into 17th place, out of the relegation zone at long last.
The question now is, with exactly half the league season remaining, can Molina keep the Yellow Submarine afloat?
The prospect of relegation back to the second tier would have been unthinkable as recently as last season.
Villarreal only reached Spain’s top tier for the first time in 1998, making an instant return to the Segunda Division.
But they were back again in 2000, this time for good.
And when Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini took the helm in 2004, El Submarino Amarillo really began to make waves among Spanish football’s traditional elite.
Turning the compact, hostile El Madrigal into a fortress, Villarreal finished third in '04/'05, fifth in '06/'07 and second in '07/'08, eight points behind champions Real Madrid and a now-unthinkable 10 ahead of Barcelona.
Inspired by Argentine playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, the team also made it to the semifinals of the Champions League in 2005/06, losing 1-0 on aggregate to Arsenal.
Pellegrini produced one more fifth-place La Liga finish in 2008/09 before being tempted by the poisoned chalice at Real.
His successor, Ernesto Valverde, lasted just half a season before Garrido was called upon to step up from reserve team duties.
A long-term servant of the club, Garrido salvaged seventh place in '09/'10, improving on that with fourth last season.
He also guided the team to the semifinals of the Europa League, where they lost to eventual winners Porto.
To the casual observer, all seemed well at the improbable success story that has been Villarreal in the 21st century.
But, as the laws of football dictate, a relative minnow cannot achieve such sustained success without attracting unwanted attention.
As well as the loss of Pellegrini, Villarreal have uncovered several hidden gems, only to see them lured away by the bright lights of Europe’s top clubs.
In 2009 Valverde allowed Chile midfielder Matias Fernandez to leave for Liga Sagres heavyweights Sporting Lisbon.
The following year, Uruguayan centre-back Diego Godin joined Atletico for eight million euros.
In the most recent offseason, Malaga’s new-found riches secured the services of Santi Cazorla, while World Cup-winning fullback Joan Capdevila joined Benfica.
During that time the club’s hierarchy have attempted to offset those losses with acquisitions such as Jonathan de Guzman, Cristian Zapata, Nilmar and Carlos Marchena.
Some stalwarts of the glory days remain, including veteran midfielder Marcos Senna and Italy striker Giuseppe Rossi.
The loss of Rossi to an ACL knee ligament injury in October has been a key factor in the team’s struggles this season.
With Nilmar also struck down by knee trouble, the goal-scoring burden has largely fallen to Marco Ruben.
Rossi is not expected back until April at the earliest, meaning Molina must make do with any resources at his disposal while also fending off reported interest in Nilmar from Europe and Brazil.
Monday’s victory over Sporting will provide the team with a much-needed morale boast, and a club battling for survival might now be expected to target a run of form as they look to pull clear of the bottom three.
On Saturday Villarreal are at home again, and have a chance to record two victories in succession for the first time this season.
But to do so will mean beating La Liga and European champions Barcelona. Time for the captain and crew of the Yellow Submarine to batten down the hatches.
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