[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ver the last decade or so it has been a topsy turvy time for Villarreal fans, with some remarkable highs counteracted by relegation and the sale of top-class players.
While participation in the latter stages of the Champions League became commonplace in the mid-2000’s, due largely in part to the presence of the club’s best-ever player Juan Román Riquelme, the cyclical effect of football saw the Estadio El Madrigal side relegated in 2011-12.
Since returning to the top flight El Submarino Amarillo has established themselves as a plucky and able opponent once more, with every reason for optimism this season in particular.
Looking at the strikers that Villarreal have had over the last decade or so, there has been a real mix of the great and the distinctly average.
Players such as Martín Palermo, Diego Forlán and the Giuseppe Rossi-Nilmar double act evoked fear in the hearts of opposition centre-halves, but in recent times some less able players have taken a place in the team’s attacking third.
Last season’s excellent campaign was underpinned by the brilliance of Argentine wonderkid Luciano Vietto, and fears at El Madrigal that his departure to rejoin Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid could leave a void in the team’s attack were justified.
However, some canny recruitment in the off-season sees Villarreal with new-look options in the final third that have started to pay dividends.
Léo Baptistão and Adrián have been added on loan from Atlético and Porto respectively, but the pairing that started the 1-0 win over Real Madrid at the weekend look to be the first-choice duo for Marcelino’s men.
Cédric Bakambu and Roberto Soldado have come from different backgrounds to take their place in the Submarine’s forward line, but look to have an appealing balance that has Villarreal punching above their weight once more.
Bakambu joined the La Liga outfit from Bursaspor in the summer and has not relented on the lethal marksmanship that made him one of the Süper Lig’s most prolific frontmen last term.
Thirteen goals in 23 starts over the course of a solitary campaign for the Bursa Atatürk Stadium side was enough to convince Villarreal to splash over €7 million on him.
Born in France and making his name in Sochaux, Bakambu has opted to play for the Congolese national side and looks to be a tricky and unorthodox attacker for Spanish defences to deal with.
A turn of pace, surprising trickery and coolness in front of goal have stood out so far in his time at El Madrigal, with the 24-year-old the team’s top scorer this term with six strikes.
The way that he almost effortlessly nutmegged World Cup winner Sergio Ramos in the win over Madrid and his cool inch-perfect pass to allow Soldado to score the decisive strike were two moments of magic in an impressive performance at the weekend.
Soldado meanwhile has been in the public eye much more, for the right and wrong reasons.
At Valencia the versatile attacker proved himself as one of La Liga’s most unforgiving strikers, scoring almost 60 domestic goals in the space of three seasons and firing his way into the Spanish national squad in the process.
Tottenham’s big-money acquisition of the centre forward was initially regarded as exciting business, but quickly backfired as Soldado struggled to adapt to life and football in England.
Dips in form were followed by prolonged spells out of the limelight for the Spaniard, who by the end of last season was a player that evidently needed a return to his homeland.
Quick-fire goals against Real Betis and Espanyol at the start of this season suggested that he was ready to continue where he left off at Valencia, but Soldado’s winner over Madrid at the weekend was his first La Liga strike in the space of three months.
Despite goals drying up for the 30-year-old recently, the striker has showed selflessness in promising positions and his link-up play with Bakambu was a standout in the victory over Rafa Benítez’s side on Saturday.
Five assists so far this term show that Soldado is ready to help the team rather than solely just his personal goal tally, while his willingness to chase down lost causes and work hard are rare positives that he has taken away from his time at White Hart Lane.
Villarreal currently sit fifth in La Liga, a point off the Champions League qualification spots, and are also through to the knockout rounds of the Europa League where an able Napoli side await them.
Although the Clásico sides and Atlético will commandeer three of the top four spots in the league this term, there is every chance that the El Madrigal outfit will be in the running to take the final position.
Virtual unknown Bakambu and a low-confidence Soldado may not have looked like a daunting strike pairing ahead of this season compared to the strikers Villarreal have had in the past.
However, the duo have struck up an understanding so far that must be respected and that will play a major part in the club’s chances of success this term.
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