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Villarreal’s Alberto Moreno: ‘I’ll go to my grave not understanding why I got all the blame’ | Europa League

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“I’ve already told some of my teammates: ‘I hope we win just so you can feel how heavy it is; you’re going to go nuts, you won’t believe it,’” Alberto Moreno says, and then the footballer who says he competes with Santi Cazorla to see who laughs more, whose last text to goalscoring goalkeeper Alisson Becker ran “bro, miles better than Salah, Mané and Firmino”, and who vows to hide if Villarreal lose the final and David de Gea messages him, falls about again. “I reckon it weighs more than the European Cup. The European Cup is heavy, but the Uefa Cup? Woah. A seriously big chunk of steel.”

On Wednesday Villarreal face Manchester United in Gdansk. It is their first European final; it is Moreno’s fifth in seven years. It is his third in this competition alone, and with three different clubs. “I was at Sevilla and we reached a Europa League final, went to Liverpool and we reached a Europa League final, came to Villarreal and we reached a Europa League final. The next team I join, I’m putting that in the contract,” he says, grinning as he mimes signing a deal.

It may need a coach clause. Moreno’s Europa League story is a tale of three finals and one manager. Unai Emery, his coach now, was in charge when he won it with Sevilla in 2014. He was also the coach who defeated him when Liverpool lost in Basle. “Yeah, and he tells me that,” Moreno says. “He’ll say: ‘We [Sevilla] really stuck it to you.’ He enjoys explaining how they played [two full-backs] to block me and Coutinho. Then he’ll say: ‘Sorry Albi,’ but he does likes to remind me.”

Not that Moreno really needs it. Emery can laugh, and Moreno certainly can too. Laughter can often feel like his natural state, a smile the size of the screen. But that final hurt. “I still don’t understand the amount of criticism,” he admits. “On the first goal they nutmegged me, sure. But I’m a defender. Players get past Sergio Ramos, the best centre-back in the world. Why can’t it happen to me?

“To this day I don’t understand why I got so, so much criticism, when the whole team didn’t play well. The finger was pointed at one player and …” Moreno shrugs. “I don’t think that’s OK. People blame you. Only you. It was like I lost the final. It’s hard. You can’t get it out of your head. You look at the paper, at social media – I don’t usually pay much attention to social media because it’s all so false – and read things. ‘Alberto, Alberto, Alberto, Alberto.’ I’ll go to my grave not understanding why I got all the blame.

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“And that’s the start of a year without playing.” Did you feel that Jürgen Klopp protected you? “My relationship with Klopp was perfect and, with Unai, he’s the best coach I’ve ever had. He knows how to squeeze the best out of you, what to say at any moment, how to get the group to go out and ‘eat’ the opposition. But protecting me would have meant keeping faith, giving me chances which didn’t happen. I don’t know if that was Klopp or the club.

“After the final against Sevilla, James Milner played left-back. If the coach puts a right-footed central midfielder there, then he doesn’t want me. But the following year pre-season started and he played me. I got back in the Spain squad after three years and just then, I injured my ankle. That was when Andy Robertson had his chance.” Moreno gestures to the ceiling. “He played at such a high level and that was it; I didn’t get any more chances.”

Alberto Moreno and Jürgen Klopp
Moreno and Jürgen Klopp after Liverpool’s defeat by Sevilla in the 2016 final. Photograph: John Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

Moreno’s last game was the second Champions League final with Liverpool, marked by the death of José Antonio Reyes, killed in a car crash that morning. “You go down to breakfast and all you’re thinking about is the final, the final, the final. And then you see the news.” There’s a pause, and Moreno looks down. He rubs his head. “José Antonio was such a good friend. All I did that day was cry. I didn’t eat. I put the television on and it was all about Reyes. I was crying like a little boy.

“Klopp came to offer his condolences. He asked how I was, if I could cope, what I wanted to do. I told him I was sad, that we had been through a lot together, but I was ready. Although I didn’t play, all I wanted was to win to dedicate it to him. When we did, pfff, he was all I could think about. It was an emotional night, because of Reyes and because it was my last game – and what better way to say goodbye? I left feeling there were things I wish I could have done, that I still had more to give, but I wouldn’t change those five years at Liverpool for anything.”

Villarreal were waiting, first under Javi Calleja then with a familiar figure. “Time flies but Emery’s the same,” Moreno says. The videos are as long as ever, then? “Yep,” he replies, laughing “but it’s better that way. The players talk about it: ‘Pfff, another video.’ But you play well because you’ve spent an hour watching your opponents. Emery knows everything. By the time we’ve finished preparing, we’ll know how many kids Cavani and Pogba have got.

“The way the team’s playing is testimony to his work. And he’s also special because he gave me my debut and a run in the team when I was just a kid.”

Moreno, though, suffered a cruciate injury in September and did not make a league appearance until April. He has played 194 minutes, making only two starts. There have been three substitute appearances in Europe. “My knee’s still not 100%. I can do everything I want, but with certain movements you can feel it’s not completely right. With a long-term injury it’s more up here,” he says, tapping his head. He is thankful he is back for the end of the season.

Alberto Moreno celebrates with Manu Trigueros (right) after Villarreal knock out Arsenal to reach the Europa League final.
Alberto Moreno celebrates with Manu Trigueros (right) after Villarreal knock out Arsenal to reach the Europa League final. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

It is some end, too. Especially for a former Liverpool player? “I spoke with Fabinho and he said: ‘Bro, on May 25 I’m a diehard Villarreal fan’,” Moreno says, giggling. But this is bigger than that. “For some teammates, it still hasn’t sunk in yet, how difficult it is to reach a European final. We can’t get this game out of our heads. We can’t wait. We always talk about enjoying the journey. We’ve made history already; if we win our names will be written into the books for ever. Beating United would round it all off.

“I’ve had a rough time the last six months but I’m getting minutes again, which is a huge reward … Having a Europa League final to look forward to still is…” Moreno blows out his cheeks. “Winning that would be incredible.

“Playing again, training with my teammates, even sitting on the bench after such a serious injury, able to experience another final, is amazing. For a year that started so badly to end like this makes it a great year.”

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