Vitolo waved his index finger and stormed toward the corner flag, arms outstretched in front of thousands more doing the same. Under the lights, Sevilla had exploded and the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan had exploded with them.
In the space of seconds, they'd scorched the length of the pitch, tearing through Barcelona; Sergio Escudero to Pablo Sarabia, Sarabia to Franco Vazquez, Vazquez back to Sarabia, Sarabia to Vitolo.
For 15 minutes, Sevilla had dazzled, and for another 28, they would continue to do so. In the face of Barcelona, the kings of this very trade, Jorge Sampaoli's men were so good it was as though they'd committed identity theft. Commanding the ball and dominating the shot count, pushing their guests into a corner, Sevilla flooded forward in waves, one after another, the manner of it extraordinary: flicks, backheels, lay-offs, nutmegs; the lot.
It didn't last, but that didn't matter. The assessment didn't change. Marca's match report, written in awe, wondered whether the Pizjuan had ever seen a performance from its team like the one in Sunday's first half. It's hard to know, but at least in recent memory there hadn't been. Not like this. Not even close.
For three-quarters of an hour, Sampaoli's side had whipped their fans into astonishment, into delirium. In doing so, they reinforced the belief that something very special is building in Spain's south, but then you glanced at the table. Sevilla: fourth. Above them in third: Villarreal.
Just before Sevilla kicked off against Barcelona, Villarreal had completed the most routine 2-0 victory over Real Betis. It was their third in their last four games in the league; fourth in their last six; sixth in their last nine.
The run has been impressive, but that sense of routine, a feeling of a certain tranquillity, has almost deflected attention. They don't dazzle. They don't awe. Whereas Sevilla have become the surging glamour boys of La Liga's second tier, their style as bold as their manager's words, Villarreal are easy to see as just, well, Villarreal: neat, pleasant, quiet. This season, though, they might be a whole lot more than that.
Eleven weeks into the campaign, the men from El Madrigal have 22 points and sit handsomely in third place behind only Real Madrid and Barcelona. It's the club's best start to a season for six years, and that in itself defies logic.
Villarreal's hot start has come on the back of the club sacking former manager Marcelino just a week before the season began. Reports of disquiet between manager and players painted a different picture to how the club is typically seen. AS indicated Marcelino had clashed with members of the board over summer signings and control of transfer-market activity.
President Fernando Roig later insinuated that the Asturian's departure was also influenced by his controversial declaration ahead of last season's final day that he wanted his old club Sporting Gijon to stay up amid a relegation scrap. His team were playing them in that final round. Villarreal subsequently fielded an enormously under-strength side; they lost and Sporting stayed up. It was messy and ill-thought and became the backdrop for other niggles.
"It's a question of principles at Villarreal, no one can go against the values that this club stands for," said Roig.
This was all days before the team's date with AS Monaco in the Champions League play-offs. In a hurry, Fran Escriba was appointed, his task an unenviable one with no preparation. Last seen being sacked by Getafe as they headed for relegation, Escriba at his presentation admitted the call "was a surprise." Most agreed, regression seemingly inevitable. Instead, though, progress has followed.
After two early draws, Escriba's outfit have claimed six wins in nine while looking like a slight reimagining of Marcelino's incarnation. Much of the former manager's template has been retained, and that's important.
Though critics might argue he's simply benefited from his predecessor's work, Escriba has been smart in resisting the urge to put his own distinct stamp on the club. He's recognised its strengths, the solid foundation in place.
"Our style of play is similar to that which Villarreal has been developing over several years," he said on the day of his unveiling. "Our idea is to continue this project. The main thing is to make the most of the quality that this team has."
That quality has its roots in a slick, counter-attacking style that starts with solidity at the back. No defensive unit in Spain outside Atletico Madrid's is as settled as Mario Gaspar, Victor Ruiz, Mateo Musacchio and Jaume Costa. In front of them in midfield, Bruno Soriano and Manu Trigueros provide more continuity, and it shows.
Villarreal own La Liga's best defensive record to date. They've conceded only seven goals in 11 games, eight fewer than Sampaoli's red-hot Sevilla. They're organised and compact, supremely comfortable in a 4-4-2 that starts deep before expanding. And yet look at the goals-for column: 19, the same as Sevilla.
The knock on Marcelino's Villarreal was that they were a little too cautious. The talent was there, but it sometimes felt constrained or shackled. Escriba has just loosened the reins a touch.
The manager has spoken about taking limits away from players, insisting the team's path to improvement lies in attack. "Having players like Trigueros, Jonathan [Dos Santos] and Bruno and limiting them to staying tight and defending is using less them for less than what they’re capable of doing," he said after his side's 5-0 bulldozing of Celta Vigo.
|Stats: Improving Villarreal? (per game)|
|Shots on Target||3.5||3.9|
Players have also spoken of a slight shift in emphasis and style. Mario's mention of greater "freedom" encapsulated the way Villarreal look and feel right now. Goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo expressed the same sentiment, adding that greater tactical "variation"—Escriba has switched to a 4-2-3-1 at times—was making them more competitive than ever.
Players, of course, are almost obligated to be positive publicly, but the words aren't empty. Villarreal are attacking with greater fluency and incision this term. Across the board, they're up in goals, shots, shots on target, possession, passes and key passes.
Perhaps that shouldn't surprise either. Villarreal's options suddenly look both extremely talented and deep. Cedric Bakambu is becoming one of the league's best strikers, and new forward Nicola Sansone is making a case for signing of the season. Behind them, Alexandre Pato is waiting for his chances and the poacher-turned-facilitator Roberto Soldado is still to come back from injury.
Wider options are just as impressive. Despite making a slower start than Sansone, fellow new signing Roberto Soriano has blossomed in recent weeks against Celta, Las Palmas and Betis. Samu Castillejo has also kicked on after a bedding-in period last season, and former Real Madrid winger Denis Cheryshev is available too.
So how far can they go? It's important to remember that schedule plays a large part in the complexion of the league table in the campaign's early months. Villarreal's fixture list has been on the gentle side, but they did take a well-earned point from Madrid at the Bernabeu and were comfortably the better team in a 0-0 draw at home with Sevilla, when the visitors needed a blinder from goalkeeper Sergio Rico to leave unscathed.
But as Sevilla have done their thing audaciously since, Villarreal's quieter excellence has grabbed significantly less attention. That's in part due to club size, history, stadium, style, recent success and the identity of the man on the touchline.
Sampaoli and his mantra of rebellion has given the Andalusians an Atletico-y feel. Stylistically they're very different, but there are parallels between Sevilla now and the early stages of Diego Simeone's reign in the capital: an aggressive Argentinian manager, building through the Europa League before staring down the big guns amid an absence of fear.
Villarreal are further back on the evolutionary curve, but the raw facts say something: Third on the table, best defence in the league and a significantly better goal difference than the side who are the talk of La Liga.
If there's something building at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, then there's something happening at El Madrigal, too.