Tuesday 15 March 2016, 12:42

Revitalised Villa rides again

The days when Emanuel Villa had his doubters are over. With his tireless running and frequent goals, the battling Villa is firing the dreams of Queretaro fans, who are full of hope that their side can overcome Tigres in the semi-finals of the 2015/16 CONCACAF Champions League.

Those hopes are not unfounded, not with the man they call El Tito having struck six times in the competition so far and top-scored in the most recent Mexican league season.

Villa has had quite a struggle to get where he is now, however, having torn the ligaments in his right knee while on duty for Tigres in late 2013 and suffered a long injury layoff as a result. Sidelined completely for the first six months of 2014, he made a gradual return to full fitness in the second half of the year, though goals proved frustratingly elusive.

“We’d all like life to be a bed of roses,” said the 34-year-old, Santa Fe-born forward in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, “but in football and in life there are always going to be some tough times. You have to be philosophical about them. They’re challenges and difficult paths that God puts in front of us and you have to be ready for them.

“I didn’t enjoy them one little bit, but I set about turning the page and doing what I’ve always done.”

Happy days While some Tigres fans made their displeasure known at Villa’s lack of form, others said that his career was over. Preferring to keep his thoughts to himself, Villa answered his critics in the best possible fashion, responding positively to the change of scene when he was loaned out to Queretaro in 2015.

“Those are the kind of situations that come up when you’re a striker,” he said, reflecting on that move. “Fortunately for me, it was one of the good ones. You have to make the most of the good times and do all you can to keep them going.”

Villa enjoyed a productive start with Queretaro, helping them reach the final of the 2015 Clausura and, in the process, book a place in this season’s CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament in which they had never appeared before. The Mexican outfit went on to top Group C in the regional competition before seeing off DC United 3-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.

“It’s a special test, a new experience for the club and for us,” said Villa, who started out with Huracan of Argentina in 2001 and has previously played for Atlas, Tecos, Cruz Azul and Pumas UNAM in his ten years in Mexico. “We’re a team that never stops running and we give it our all. As far as we’re concerned, all our remaining games are finals against big teams. We’re going well, though, and we’re ready to face anyone.”

Eyes on the prize Upcoming opponents Tigres are unquestionably a big side and boast one of the most balanced squads in Mexican football. “If you just sit back the whole time against Tigres, then it’s not going to work out. They’re the kind of team that struggle a bit when the opposition sit tight and hit on the counter. If you set up that way and you attack without being reckless, you can cause them problems.”

He added: “You have to make them see that the team they’re up against knows what it’s doing when it’s on the attack. They’ve got the best players in Mexico and they’ve got everything you need in a team. So what you have to do if you want to win the tie is try and match them.”

Queretaro have their own assets, not to mention plenty of motivation and a hunger to succeed, as Villa explained: “It’s a team that’s very happy in its own skin. We’ve got some experienced players and some youngsters who are keen to develop and progress.

“We’ve been through a lot in this time together. We’ve reached a final and we’re playing in an international competition. They’re new challenges that serve as motivation for everyone. I hope we can channel that motivation in the right way.”

Queretaro also boast the experience of Victor Manuel Vucetich, a coach who has won the competition three times. “Vuce is a great coach and there’s a good reason why he’s been one of the most successful in Mexico,” said Villa, voicing his admiration. “He always tries to get the best out of players on the pitch, but his biggest attribute is that he’s a great man manager, which is not something you can say about every coach. He’s genuinely a cut above the rest.”

Given that the Champions League final is within touching distance and a ticket to Japan 2016 only four games away, Villa is inevitably contemplating capping his welcome return to form with a FIFA Club World Cup appearance: “That would be absolutely amazing, a unique experience. El Profe Vucetich has been three times and he’s told us all about it. It’s up to us now to fulfil the dream.”