Spain midfielder Dani Parejo looks back on a memorable first term at Villarreal and ahead to the final he sees as the "prize for my career".
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Many raised their eyebrows when Dani Parejo, a long-time servant to Valencia, made the short switch to Villarreal last summer on a free transfer. Just 12 months earlier the midfielder had lifted the Copa del Rey, the only senior title of a long career that began at Real Madrid and included a season in England at Queens Park Rangers. The Spanish international, 32, now stands on the brink of a second trophy as Villarreal take on Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League final.
I decided to come to Villarreal because they were doing things very well and are a serious, stable club. They do everything to make sure players can perform at their absolute best. And they brought in Unai Emery, a born winner.
He won the Europa League [three times] with Sevilla, he made it to the final with Arsenal. It’s a competition which is very dear to him and which he loves. From the very first moment, he made it clear that we needed to take it step-by-step, that it’s very difficult to get to a final; even more difficult to win it. But he has given every step the attention and importance it needed.
We’ve gone all in from the first match. In the group stage, we were favourites and we took that role head on. The trips were tough – four or five-hour flights – they wear you down physically and mentally. But we came through it. Everyone has played a role. We aren’t 13, 14 or 15 players. All 25 players who are a part of the squad are equally important.
We advanced in first place and got one of the toughest opponents we could have drawn: Salzburg, a Champions League-calibre team. It looks very easy in hindsight, because we won 2-0 away and 2-1 at home. Next came Dynamo Kyiv, another long trip. We had adverse weather conditions but competed well and got a great result: 2-0. In the return we were 2-0 up at the break and on our way.
Then it was Dinamo Zagreb in the quarter-finals – they were unbeaten at home in all competitions this season [including a fine 3-0 win against Tottenham]. We edged a close game 1-0, showing them a lot of respect. In the second leg, everything went our way [a 2-1 victory]. So it was on to the semi-finals and Arsenal, one of the tournament favourites.
We knew it would be difficult. We played really well, especially the first leg at home. We won 2-1, and could have given ourselves more breathing space. Just one goal in the second leg would have taken them into the final but we held on. We had chances, but it was just as important to keep a clean sheet. We knew that would be enough.
I was so unlucky to lose several semi-finals – one [for Valencia against Emery’s Sevilla in 2014] was particularly cruel. But years later, football offers you a chance for revenge. Thanks to my perseverance and industry, I am playing in a Europa League final – not many people can say that. I look at this final as kind of the prize for my career, for being persistent.
Now we are up against the side who, I think, have been title favourites since they switched from the Champions League. Manchester United are a great team, especially in attack. They’ve got top players – Edinson Cavani, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba. But we’ll set ourselves up as we would for any other game, playing as we have until now: as a team.
Playing in Europe at this level and getting to the final unbeaten isn’t easy. Yet we have done it. To win one more game and win the trophy would be incredible. It’s a trophy the club deserves, because a town with 50,000 inhabitants achieving what Villarreal are achieving deserves a lot of credit.
I’m here now but I’ve always seen their ambition from the outside. This season was their fifth European semi-final. The president and all the staff know what their goal is and where they want to get. I think this sets them apart from the rest: they’re a small, family club where everyone is very clear about things.