First-half strikes from Paco Alcacer and Gerard Moreno guided Villarreal into the Europa League semifinals with a 2-1 victory over Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday and a 3-1 aggregate triumph.
Villarreal will face their coach Unai Emery’s former club Arsenal in the last four after the English side overcame Slavia Prague.
“First of all, I’m used to meeting ex-teams so playing Arsenal, where I coached, is nothing new as an experience,” said Emery. “We’ll face up to it with humility, pride and responsibility. This is a chance to establish Villarreal on the top rung of European football.”
Villarreal dominated the game and almost took the lead after 25 minutes when forward Samuel Chukwueze rattled the post with a close-range volley.
They did not have to wait long to open the scoring, however, with Alcacer netting 10 minutes later. Chukwueze was initially flagged offside in the build-up, but the goal was allowed to stand following a VAR check.
Moreno doubled the hosts’ lead three minutes before the break after Alcacer’s effort had been parried by Dominik Livakovic in the Dinamo goal following a marauding run from centre back Raul Albiol to tee up the chance.
The visitors rallied after the break and Geronimo Rulli was forced into a couple of smart stops in the Villarreal goal while at the other end Chukwueze and Moreno spurned chances to ensure victory.
Mislav Orsic pulled one back for Zagreb 15 minutes from time, but far from setting up a nervy finale the visitors never threatened to get back into the tie as the Spaniards held firm.
“This club with the short history that it has has done so much in La Liga and Europe, which shows just how well it all works here,” midfielder Dani Parejo said.
“We’ve been brilliant in this competition since the group stages. It’s just a shame the fans can’t be here, as these are the kind of matches you want to play in front of your fans — but this win is for them,” he added.
“We took the initiative and controlled things. Yes, they got one back, but we were the better side throughout the tie.”
Emery added that he believes his side is as capable as the previous clubs he coached.
“This is Villarreal’s fifth semifinal in Europe and, personally as a coach, it’ll be my sixth across Sevilla, Arsenal, Valencia and now here. It shows we are capable, it makes us proud but I re-emphasise that we have to ‘feel’ the experience. We really need to go out and enjoy it,” said Emery.