"A club coming from a town with 50,000 inhabitants making it to the Champions League final would be a milestone in the history of football," says Villarreal's inspirational captain in UEFA.com interview.
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Villarreal's captain and commander-in-chief on the pitch, Raúl Albiol, brings a wealth of experience to the team from his time with Valencia, Real Madrid and Napoli, but the 36-year-old still feels the thrill as his side edges closer to the UEFA Champions League final.
Albiol won the UEFA Europa League with Unai Emery's side last season and is hoping that Villarreal can punch above their weight once more in the semi-final, having eliminated Juventus and Bayern in the previous knockout rounds.
Liverpool will be no easy challenge, but having won two EUROs and a FIFA World Cup with Spain, Albiol is a fearsome opponent, too. Ahead of the semi-final first leg at Anfield on 27 April, he spoke to UEFA.com about Villarreal's journey so far and their determination to "write another chapter in history".
On eliminating Bayern
We are very happy about all the work done by the whole team in the two games [against Bayern in the quarter-finals] and for having suffered as a team. The thing that can make you the happiest is to see your teammates work and suffer side by side, and to experience a night like that in Munich is very special.
In the dressing room, [Étienne] Capoue was dancing; everyone was celebrating. To see your teammates happy, and to see that they believed in being able to eliminate Bayern, speaks volumes about the team and how competitive it is. Now we are facing a great rival, but we are trying to move forward and we are dreaming of that final.
Raúl Albiol factfile
Born: 4 September 1985, Vilamarxant, Spain
UEFA club competition appearances/goals: 117/4
UEFA Champions League appearances/goals: 77/2
International appearances/goals: 58/0
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On facing Liverpool next
The further you get, the higher the level is, like in video games. As you complete new chapters, the level [of difficulty] gets harder. In the end, if you want to finish first, you need to complete the video game, right? Liverpool are hard, very hard. They have recovered the level they had when they won both the Champions [League] and the Premier [League]. I think they’re back in the picture once again. It’s true that they lowered the level a bit last season, but they’re back this year.
It’ll be very hard but that’s how a Champions League semi-final is. Am I scared? No, not at all. In football you can feel nervous but it’s not because you’re scared. It’s adrenaline-driven, it’s the eagerness to get on the pitch and play. It’s great to play a Champions League semi-final match at Anfield. I think that having this experience in this stadium will be awesome.
On stepping up to the UEFA Champions League after winning the UEFA Europa League
The Europa League has helped us a lot to have these experiences in the Champions League. They are not at the same level, but last year we started to be a competitive team in Europe and to know how to play in tough knockout rounds And I think that now, [by eliminating] Juve and Bayern, we have shown that the team has personality, knows how to suffer; we have come through in difficult moments.
Winning the club’s first European title was historic, but if we suffer defeat to Liverpool, it could be historic too. So, we have to do our best during these two matches to try to do it; we have to give everything to write another chapter in history. If Villarreal got into the Champions final, it would be something historic for a club, and a village, such as Villarreal.
Samu Chukwueze on Raúl Albiol
“[Raúl Albiol is] an amazing guy. There is one word he uses: ‘frate’. I don’t understand what 'frate' means, but when he says: 'Frate, ¿cómo estás?' [How’s it going, brother?], I say 'Ah, bien, bien.' [Ah, good, good.] He’s so funny. He’s so good. I call him 'padre'. He’s just like a father to me. I listen to him all the time.”
On what Villarreal's success means for football
It reflects that with effort, dedication and team spirit, you can achieve great things – and that money and great players are not the only way to win titles. In the end, we are a great group of players with a good level, who want to grow and improve, who work hard and spend many hours getting ready for every match with the staff. We are now at that point in which we can believe.
It would be like a dream to play the Champions League final with Villarreal, a very humble and hardworking team that has struggled to remain among the elite. [It has involved] many efforts from the Roig family. They have gone through very happy and very hard moments. A club coming from a town with 50,000 inhabitants making it to the Champions League final would become a milestone in the history of football. So, it would be something that not only Villarreal supporters would remember but many football-lovers.