By Chris Harris

Pierluigi Collina's familiar bald pate is missing from the latter stages of this season's Champions League, but the recently retired referee's influence is still being felt in one small corner of Spain.

It was way back in August when Collina disallowed what looked like a perfectly valid goal by Duncan Ferguson. If that had stood, Everton would have been level on aggregate with Villarreal. Instead, the qualifying tie slipped away from them.

Eight months on the Spaniards have surprised all and sundry by reaching the last four in their first Champions League campaign. In the early 1990s they played in a regional league in front of 150 people. Now Villarreal are just one hurdle away from the Stade de France.

So what has been the catalyst for their meteoric rise? Financial backing has helped. The astute coach Manuel Pellegrini deserves plenty of credit. And on the pitch, the renaissance of two South American talents has been the key.

Not long ago, Juan Roman Riquelme had hit the rocks at Barcelona and Diego Forlan was forlorn at Manchester United. Both were stuck in a rut, both sought salvation at Villarreal and both are now blossoming. According to Inigo Gurruchaga of El Correo, the set-up at El Madrigal has given them the platform they need to perform.

"It was a disaster for Riquelme in Barcelona, but now he fits in and is an international star," he says. "It is the whole atmosphere which has made a difference. Why didn't it work at Barcelona? Because the whole set-up was disjointed at the time.

"The chairman bought Riquelme but the manager Louis van Gaal didn't want him. Also, he is a player who needs to be the focus of the team and Van Gaal did not buy into that theory. As a result Riquelme was not given the opportunity and people wondered why he cost so much money.

"Then, according to legend, some of the Argentinian guys at Villarreal told him he would be happy there and now the team has been built around him. Arsène Wenger is one manager who knows that the cultural set-up at a club is important and the set-up at Villarreal suits Riquelme.

"He is the focus of the team. When they go forward, everyone is expecting the movement of Riquelme and the others work around him. Of course, he needs help and Marcos Senna helps him in midfield in the way Gilberto helps Cesc Fabregas, he does a lot of the defensive work, the obscure work. But Riquelme is the creator."

And the chances he creates more often than not end up at the feet of Forlan. The Uruguayan was a figure of fun during his time in the Premiership after struggling to find the net, but since leaving Old Trafford Forlan has shown just what Sir Alex Ferguson saw in him.

After just 10 goals in 62 appearances for United, Forlan went on to share the European Golden Boot with Thierry Henry last term after a prolific year at El Madrigal. As Gurruchaga explains, Forlan's new surroundings have made him a new player.

"It has been a similar journey for Forlan as it was for Riquelme. The style of play at Manchester United did not suit him, they play at an incredible speed and he struggled to score goals. English football does not have the same tactical movement as Latin America, where you hide and then accelerate.

"It was very difficult for Forlan as a result. I can't remember how many games he took to score a goal but when it happened it was a massive event, he was seen as a joke, but now everything at Villarreal suits him and he is playing with a lot of confidence."

It was Forlan's away goal which proved so decisive in the last round against Internazionale. Don't be surprised if the reborn Uruguayan has the last laugh when he returns to English soil tonight.

  • The Villarreal squad trained at Highbury on Tuesday night. Scroll down the page to see pictures from the training session.

Villarreal train at Highbury

Villarreal train under the floodlights

Villarreal train at Highbury

Tacchinardi and Forlan celebrate


Villarreal train at Highbury

Diego Forlan back on English soil

Villarreal train at Highbury

Riquelme (left) prepares for Arsenal

18/1 - Henry to score first and Arsenal to win 2-0 - plus win a trip to Villarreal

Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to as the source
Chris Harris 19 Apr 2006