When Juan Román Riquelme arrived at Villarreal CF the club were still getting used to the Liga; he left four years later with them a side to fear in Europe.
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As Juan Román Riquelme announces his retirement, Spanish correspondent Richard Martin reflects on the four-year spell at Villarreal CF that shone light on an unknown corner of Spanish football.
Setting the tone
Villarreal ascended to the top flight for the first time in 1998 but it was after Riquelme's arrival on loan from FC Barcelona in 2003 that they really announced their arrival.
The playmaker inspired Villarreal to the 2003/04 UEFA Cup semi-finals, then combined with Diego Forlán to the tune of 40 goals the following season as the Yellow Submarine finished third in the Liga.
The best was still to come as, having signed a permanent deal, a thrilling debut UEFA Champions League campaign saw Manuel Pellegrini's side reach the semi-finals before an agonising 1-0 aggregate loss to Arsenal FC. Cruelly, Riquelme had a last-gasp penalty saved.
Vision, intelligence, an incredible passing range and a not-so-secret weapon at set pieces. Every attacking move Villarreal made was channelled through him. Stop Riquelme and you stop Villarreal was the refrain, almost always in vain.
Carlos Bianchi, his manager at CA Boca Juniors, said the playmaker saw things three times faster than everyone else. Spain's UEFA EURO 2008-winning coach Luis Aragonés was also a fan, saying: "He is one of the few players that always put the ball where it should go."
His finest moment
Villarreal trailed FC Internazionale Milano 2-1 going into the second leg of their 2005/06 UEFA Champions League quarter-final: cometh the hour, cometh their superman.
Riquelme was the beating heart of a flawless display, also delivering the free-kick for compatriot Rodolfo Arruabarrena to head in the only goal of the game as Villarreal advanced on away goals.
"Villarreal are in the semi-finals when almost nobody thought we could get this far," said Riquelme. "When I heard our happy fans as the final whistle blew it dawned on me that we had achieved something huge."
What his team-mates said …
"Riquelme showed me that football is easy. I was very lucky to play with him and I always wanted to play as he did." Robert Pirès
"I had a great relationship with Riquelme, and I would always want him in my team." Diego Forlán
"Román is a footballer from another galaxy, a world-class player who always carries the team on his shoulders. It is joy to play alongside him." Alessio Tacchinardi