"I said 'Where is Villarreal?'" explains Étienne Capoue, who describes it like he was scanning a map of the world and pointing his finger down. "I was told it was in the sun, just there, next to Valencia. So I said 'alright, let's go'." Capoue's last two games for Watford were in England's second tier against Norwich and Huddersfield.
He left in January 2021 and his last two games of that season for Villarreal came against Real Madrid and Manchester United. Villarreal beat United on penalties to win the Europa League final and Capoue was named man of the match. On Wednesday, Villarreal, the club Capoue knew nothing about, face Liverpool in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals. A small, sleepy town on Spain's east coast now has an outside shot at being crowned kings of Europe.
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"Winning the Champions League? We never had the audacity to say we could win the Champions League," Capoue laughs. "We're the smallest club in the semi-finals, we were the smallest club in the quarter-finals. We're just making our merry way. And we have nothing to lose."
Villarreal knocked out Juventus in the last 16 and Bayern Munich in the quarters, two clubs that together own twice as many European Cups - eight - as Villarreal have wins in the knock-out stage. When Bayern were winning a third consecutive European Cup in 1976, Villarreal were being relegated to the Spanish fourth tier.
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For some at Villarreal, the talk of fairytales and giant-killings might be wearing thin. Villarreal is a tiny town but a big club, the Europa League champions, a team owned by a supermarket tycoon, who have finished only one of the last eight seasons outside La Liga's top seven. "We don't care, we know we're underdogs," says Capoue. "Nobody will say we're favourites because we're not. Who are the other teams? What else can we say about them? It's not offending anyone to say there are 50,000 people here and in their stadiums alone, they have 70,000 seats. We don't mind, it's the truth."
Liverpool will be a step up again, with Jürgen Klopp's side still in the hunt for an historic quadruple. And at Anfield, the challenge is one of the fiercest in football, something Capoue knows only too well. He has played four times there, all for Watford, and lost by an aggregate score of 18-1. "Anfield is hell, you have to say it how it is. It's hell," says Capoue. "It's the worst stadium I've been to in England. Whether it's the atmosphere, the way they play... For 90 minutes, you live in hell. They have this ability to transcend themselves, to cause you nothing but problems, all the time, in any part of the field. They never stop, they rush you all the time, they only want to score goals, and even when they score, they carry on. They want to knock you out. They don't care what or who is in front of them. They just want to kill everyone and that's it."
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At least Capoue is unlikely to be intimidated. The French midfielder is not a fan of football, avoids watching football at home and says "I don't want football to be my whole life". In contrast, Villarreal's coach Unai Emery will know every detail about his opponents this week. Emery's meticulous preparation extends to famously long video sessions, with the aim to prepare his players for every possible scenario. "I'm in the front row, I'm the good student," Capoue says with a smile. I don't watch football at all so I don't mind. If the others watch football at home and then when they come in they have to watch more football videos, maybe that annoys them. It doesn't bother me because I know it's not for fun, it's work. He does it to give you as much information as possible and in the end, all these situations, in matches, they happen. At the end of the match, you say to yourself, 'you know what, the coach, he is incredibly smart'. That happens to me all the time."
Capoue has no doubt about the root of Emery's problems at Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal. "The coach's main way of playing is about putting your ego aside," says Capoue. "We do, and that shows on the pitch, but with the big teams that's also what came back to bite him." At Villarreal, it's a method the players "follow blindly", says Capoue, an approach that instills belief. "We're in the semis which shows we weren't afraid of Juventus or Bayern," he says. "We're not a big team but we're a solid team, playing for the love of football, that wants to enjoy this moment. Because what we're experiencing is incredible."
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