The first year of the post-Manuel Pellegrini era commenced with a startling thud, as through seven rounds last season, Villarreal propped every other Primera División team up at the bottom of the table.  This smooth, plucky team from the Valencian Community had not felt such futility since they made their maiden voyage to La Liga in the 1998/99 season.  In that campaign, Villarreal was relegated to the Segunda División after losing a relegation playoff to Sevilla, the last year that La Liga had a relegation playoff.

Staving off relegation never entered the mind Ernesto Valverde’s team, and they steadily improved through the next several months.  The upward curve plateaued, however, and in January 2010, the board sacked Valverde and promoted Villarreal “B” coach Juan Carlos Garrido to manage the senior team.

The unassuming yet intense Garrido knew that his time from January to the end of the season would become a de facto audition to keep the job.  He settled the squad, and Villarreal finished a respectable seventh place despite their torrid beginning.  Chairman Fernando Roig Alfonso rewarded Garrido for his work and extended his contract to June 2011 so that Garrido could have a full season to show his worth.

Garrido took that vote of confidence from the board into this season and returned Villarreal to their normal perch in the highest percentiles of Spanish football.

Even though Villarreal has been known for maintaining shrewd financial stances when it comes to signings and transfers, Fernando Roig Alfonso gave Garrido a decent transfer kitty with which to work this summer, but Garrido felt that the players he currently had were more than enough to threaten for a top-four position.  Garrido and Sporting Director Fernando Roig Negueroles believed that they only needed a couple of reinforcements from the summer transfer window.  They did not even need to use that budget because they earned enough from the transfers of Diego Godín, Damián Escudero, and Joseba Llorente to achieve for what they set out in the market.

Both of Villarreal’s summer signings, €2.2 million Carlos Marchena and €6 million Borja Valero, have made instant impacts with the team.  Specifically, Borja Valero’s sparkling play on both flanks has given both Joan Capdevila and Ángel López extra potency from their fullback positions because Borja’s combinations with them have created openings deep inside the opposition half that only enhances Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi’s chances of finishing these moves.

Because Villarreal only signed two players for this season, Garrido felt that the players currently in the squad would raise their games and expectations from the last campaign, and they have not disappointed.

After a year of fighting major and minor injuries, Santi Cazorla has restored his place in the Spanish national team with sprightly, ebullient play for Villarreal.  Whereas Ernesto Valverde marginalized Cazorla to an extent by forcing him more into the central midfield, Garrido reinstituted Cazorla back onto the wings with the freedom to cut inside when necessary, and Cazorla has thrived under Garrido’s system with two goals, three assists, one behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Özil for the league lead, and countless numbers of pinpoint passes and unselfish runs that keep Villarreal flowing fluently.

Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar have made themselves into the second most prolific tandem statistically with a combined ten goals through eight matches, only behind Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín’s fourteen goals.  The previous season’s trio of Rossi, Nilmar, and Joseba Llorente looked formidable on paper because of Llorente’s height and strength as the center forward with the smaller, faster Rossi and Nilmar supporting on either side of Llorente.  With Nilmar adapting to Spain after his record €11 million transfer from Internacional, Rossi dealing with constant transfer rumors, and Llorente failing to feature in half of Villarreal’s fixtures due to injury and managerial decisions, they could not score consistently, even though Villarreal scored a respectable fifty-eight goals.

The most improved part of Villarreal’s team runs down the spine, as Villarreal “B” graduate and central defender Mateo Musacchio has admirably stepped into the void left by Diego Godín after his transfer to Atlético Madrid and central midfielder Bruno Soriano has controlled the center of his park by supporting the defense with his ball-winning as well as instigating counter-attacks with his array of passes.  Spanish national team coach Vicente del Bosque has been so impressed with Bruno that he called him up to the squad for their friendly against Mexico as well as their two Euro 2012 qualifiers against Lithuania and Scotland.

With all these ameliorative properties syncing together, Villarreal has won five of its first seven matches in La Liga, with only one loss to Real Sociedad in the opening round of fixtures, and currently lead their Europa League group with six points from three matches.

Villarreal, like their provincial neighbors Valencia, played through a fairly soft schedule and racked up a point tally that could compete with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona through the first seven rounds in La Liga.  Valencia has fallen back after sitting on top to their more familiar territory below Madrid and Barça due to consecutive losses to Barcelona last week and Mallorca this weekend.

After failing to claim the first position when they could only draw 2-2 against local rivals Hércules on Monday, the late Sunday kickoff against Atlético Madrid would start a stretch of five matches in the league that would truly delineate Villarreal’s odds of staying within striking distance of not only a UEFA Champions League berth but the alien concept of ripping the champion’s trophy away from Barcelona.

Villarreal could not count on the services of Mateo Musacchio and Borja Valero because of their suspensions stemming from their red cards against Hércules, but Gonzalo Rodríguez and vice-captain Cani were more than capable replacements for the pair.

For Atlético Madrid, they sent out their normal starting eleven with one exception: Diego Forlán sat on the bench for the second straight La Liga match in favor of Diego Costa.  Whether Quique Sánchez Flores kept Forlán on the sidelines because he had just played in the Europa League against Rosenborg on Thursday or because of generally poor form, the increasingly agitated striker has now become transfer speculation with links to Liverpool, Juventus, and other top European clubs.

Fortunately for Villarreal, Atlético Madrid played with a strange disinterest after the first twenty minutes that made work for the Yellow Submarine minimal to come out with a victory at home.  Cani was involved in both Villarreal goals, providing the end product after Nilmar terrorized Atlético with pure speed and composure on the ball to slot in Cani inside the box, and creating the second goal for Giuseppe Rossi after cutting in from the left wing to slice the Atlético defense yet again with a telling through ball into the penalty area.

Unfortunately for Villarreal’s perception throughout the country, Atlético Madrid did not provide the stern test that they forced Barcelona and Valencia through when they played those teams.  This match against Atlético was supposed to supply evidence whether or not Villarreal was for real.  Villarreal will have to wait to show their merits for the championship until November when they face Athletic Bilbao at home, Barcelona at the Camp Nou, and Valencia at home in consecutive weeks.  What transpired on Sunday night did not sway opinion one way or the other about Villarreal, but it did point out one glaring detail: Atlético Madrid’s schizophrenic personality has not been cured after a summer of therapy.

Fueras de Juego

– Luís Fabiano awoke from his slumber to score his first two goals of the season in Sevilla’s topsy-turvy 4-3 victory over Athletic Bilbao.  After all the summer haranguing about wanting to leave Sevilla, Fabiano stayed with the Andalucian club, and in his prior appearances before Sunday’s match against Athletic, he played and acted like a pouting schoolboy.  He actually looked interested throughout the match today, and when Fabiano cares, to no surprise, he produces with devastating aplomb

– Speaking of occasionally moody players, Cristiano Ronaldo poured in four goals in Real Madrid’s 6-1 drubbing of pathetic Racing de Santander.  While Ronaldo will receive the deserved plaudits for his outstanding performance, the man of the match was €25 million summer signing Ángel di María.  Besides assisting in two goals, he created Ronaldo’s fourth goal when Domingo Cisma felled di María in the penalty area and played an excellent left back, a position foreign to di María, when Pedro León replaced Marcelo with twenty minutes remaining.

Di María’s early struggles (he had only played in three matches for Real, mind you) had the Madridistas worried that he would become another flop.  His “Welcome to Madrid” moment came against Real Sociedad, when he gave his team the lead with a spectacular curler to the top right corner with his “weaker” right foot.  Ever since that point, he suddenly became indispensable to the starting eleven, and when a player receives the full confidence of José Mourinho, it will only help spur on his game.

– César Santin, the Brazilian forward for FC København, made himself an object of ridicule against FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday night when he stopped playing with a two-on-two breakaway with teammate Dame N’Doye, thinking he was called offside.  The assistant referee did not raise his flag, and referee Stéphane Lannoy did not blow his whistle.  That opportunity ended up as one of only two or three chances that København had of threatening José Manuel Pinto’s goal that entire night.

The situation took a turn to the weird when København lodged a formal complaint to UEFA on Friday, stating that Pinto simulated the referee’s whistle in order to dupe Santin.  Pinto could face a two-match European ban for this alleged “violation of decent conduct.”  With all the whistles that rain down from the crowd every match, Santin should not get his signals crossed with the real whistle, but if Pinto has the ability to whistle just like a referee’s whistle, full credit to Pinto for such a ruse.  Unsportsmanlike behavior, absolutely, but would not pride prevent Santin from admitting that Pinto fooled him into grinding to a halt?  Pinto could not even make the halfway line with his goal kicks, so apparently, he allegedly needed to use the last item in his bag of tricks to keep FC København at bay.  More column space about this delicious “Whistle-Gate” side story to come.