Bruno Soriano had the look of a boxer about him, a bandage round his wrist and thumb, his eye disappearing beneath the bruising on his head, all purple and puffy. He couldn't see properly but he saw everything: every pass, every move, every space, every danger, every battle. He clashed with Raúl García, he clashed with David Villa and he clashed with the fourth official … a bandage round his head, his shorts round his ankles, a wild look on his face. He didn't hide from anything or anything, especially not the ball. He won it, gave it, and asked for it back again. Villarreal's captain was everywhere and he was not going to rest.
On Monday morning, at last, he can. But his manager says he shouldn't: his manager says it's not right. The Villarreal manager, Marcelino Toral, reckons Bruno should be packing his bags for Africa along with the Spain team, heading off for Guinea and South Africa. "It's not fair that Bruno hasn't been called up to the selección," he said on Sunday night. "If Xabi and [Sergio] Busquets aren't there, he's the best." The coach had just watched Bruno lead his team to a 1-1 draw with Atlético Madrid that could, and possibly should, have been more. "We defended well," Diego Simeone said, pretty much saying it all.
The last time Villarreal and Atlético met it was the end. On 13 May 2012, Atlético came to the Madrigal and won 1-0 with an 87th minute Radamel Falcao goal. It was the last game of the season and by the time the Colombian scored, Atlético knew that it wouldn't make any difference: they weren't going to reach the Champions League anyway. For Villarreal, it made all the difference. Defeat saw them relegated. After the game, down in the tunnel, an argument raged between the Villarreal vice-president José Manuel Llaneza and their former centre-back, now of Atlético, Diego Godín.
Godín was absent on Sunday night, called up by Uruguay, but the two sides met again. Reporters tried and tried, and then tried again, seeking a scandal, but no one was having it. There was no edge, no settling of accounts, just a mutual admiration. "Revenge?" asked Mateo Musacchio, the Villarreal defender. "No, not at all … they came to win, and that's normal." Want someone to blame? Look along the coast to Valencia instead: the week before that 2012 fixture, a draw would have been enough for both teams and there'd been talk of an agreement but neighbours Valencia beat Villarreal with a 92nd-minute goal. "We'll remember this," Bruno warned. Last month, back in the first division, they hammered Valencia 4-1.
Besides, in a strange sort of way, relegation might even have been good for Villarreal. They sold their highest earners: Nilmar, Borja Valero, Diego López, Cristián Zapata and Wakaso. Giuseppe Rossi later left, too, as did Jonathan de Guzmán. At the end of last season Marcos Senna, a club legend, retired. They missed them – well, some of them – but they had little choice. Nilmar and Rossi had been on close to €4m a year; the top earners now are Bruno and Giovani dos Santos on €1.5m. The president, Fernando Roig, sold a 2.4% stake in Mercadona supermarkets, around €70m, and used it to help clear the club's debts. Increasingly, players from the youth system, built on an old orange grove just outside the town, were given their chance: 11 of the current 23-man squad have played for Villarreal prior to first-team level. The budget came down by almost half.
Meanwhile, Roig turned down a subsidiary from the local government, insisting: "Right now there are greater priorities [for the government]." Season ticket-holders who lost their jobs were allowed to go for free in the first year, for 33% of the original price in the second and for 66% in the third. Instead of fatalism, there were full houses; at the start of this season, the queues for season tickets went round the block. The atmosphere is different this time, too; there appears a greater sense of communion. And, put basically, more noise. The way the team plays helps. There's an ambition about them that is contagious.
In week 22 of last season Villarreal were 10th and Marcelino took over as manager. The coach who led Racing Santander to an incredible Uefa Cup place in 2007-08, having taken Recreativo up and then to eighth place the two years before, had an immediate impact. Villarreal clinched promotion in second place. He maintained the technique and precision that had defined the Yellow Submarine but made Villarreal faster, more direct. "We wanted to be like Barcelona; now we want to be like Madrid," as Cani put it. "We're looking for goals with fewer passes now," Bruno says.
Marcelino worked on the players' fitness and mentality, changing routines and diet. According to Alfredo Matilla in AS, the squad lost 56kg between them, even though Bruno, for example, put on the muscle he had never really had before. Cani's body fat index dropped 3%. Watching Cani this season, it is hard to reconcile him with the player he once was. He'd always been talented, now he is suddenly everywhere: aggressive, dynamic, determined.
And then there's Bruno. When he first joined Villarreal he did not last long; from the village of Artana (population under 2,000 ), he didn't really fancy it and headed back. He just wanted to play with his mates. He worked briefly down a mine and rejoined Villarreal to play in the B team in 2004, aged 19. Juan Carlos Garrido had persuaded him to give it another try. In the youth system, they had to change the rules that governed one end-of-year award for consistency to give others a chance because he kept on winning it. But there was still something a little distant about him.
Talented enough to get four caps for Spain relegation brought out the leadership in him, the responsibility and identification. The year away did him no harm; it might have done him good. Now, only three players in the league have recovered possession more than him; only five players have completed more passes.
He has better team-mates around him, too. Senna has gone but with Villarreal's economy stabilised, they were able to sign: this summer they were one of only four clubs in Spain who were net spenders. Tomás Pina and Dos Santos, who was unavailable on Sunday night, joined from Mallorca for €10m. Together, they're impressing enormously. Thirteen weeks into the season, newly-promoted Villarreal sit fourth. "For much of the game we were the better side," insisted manager Marcelino after they drew 2-2 with Real Madrid and he was right: that should have made it four wins in their first four games. Since then, they have been beaten three times. Fourth place is no fluke; defeat against Getafe, on the other hand, was.
The match against Atlético was a game everyone was looking forward too; between arguably the two best sides in Spain, teams with clear identities playing better than expectations. At the end of it, Villarreal could feel unfortunate not to have become the second team in all competitions to defeat Diego Simeone's team. "A point … and thanks," ran one headline.
While both goals were own goals, that does not do justice to a fascinating match; intense and fast. Atlético were a goal up inside two minutes, a position from which they have been unbeatable, but Villarreal went for them. As the game went on, the screw tightened and the visitors retreated further. When the equaliser came in the 78th minute, it was deserved. Villarreal are the only side this season who have had Atlético on the ropes. "This is an important point against a team that plays really well," Simeone said. "Villarreal forced us back: they play nice football," Tiago added.
In the midst of it, in the midst of everything, was Bruno. The player by player ratings in Marca declared him simply: "the best." El Mundo Deportivo called him the soul of his side. "He was the best by some way," said AS, describing him, appropriately enough, as the "crack". A clash of heads with Raul García left his eye half closed, a bandage helping him stand out on the pitch, drawing attention towards him. All it really did was underline his ubiquitousness and show just how well he and his team have played this season. On Monday morning, said his manager, he should have been heading off to the Spain squad, but Bruno didn't travel. He nursed a sore head instead.
• Here is the news: Sevilla won away. That's the first time in 14 months. And the third, from Carlos Bacca, was lovely. So was the second from Vitolo.
• Insert your own BBC joke here … there's a lot of repeats, that's for sure. Especially from Ronaldo, who scored the 19th hat-trick of his Real Madrid career. He really is ridiculously brilliant.
• That wasn't the only hat-trick this weekend: step forward Granada striker Youssef El Arabi.
• It might have taken a terrible bit of goalkeeping at one end and a brilliant bit of goalkeeping at the other, but Almería won again … that's three in a row. They're out of the relegation zone, where they should never really have slipped in the first place. The luck that deserted them seems to be very much on their side now. Another goal, another summersault celebration from former Sheffield Wednesday legend Rodri. Suso, their most creative player, was suspended. The star, though, was a 16-year-old Osasuna striker who first came to people's attention 10 years ago as a Osasuna hooligan, bare-chested and screaming. José García looks like he might be some player, too. One lovely bit of skill and shot almost brought the equaliser.
• "If you haven't got balls you can't play for Valencia at Mestalla ... if you haven't got balls, you can't be their manager either." Miroslav Djukic has balls.
• So, Barcelona played 'badly' and, erm, won 4-1. This time, Betis were the victims. Lionel Messi went off injured, his fourth injury this season. Cesc Fábregas was Barcelona's best player. "I know perfectly well what the manager's perfect team is and I'm not in it," Fábregas said afterwards. He should be. Betis are now bottom for the first time in five years but as the game came to an end their fans kept on singing. "I don't know of any fans in the world that react like that," coach Pepe Mel said.
Results: Osasuna 0-1 Almería; Granada 3-1 Málaga; Real Madrid 5-1 Real Sociedad; Getafe 1-1 Elche; Athletic Bilbao 2-1 Levante; Celta 0-2 Rayo Vallecano; Valencia 2-2 Valladolid; Villarreal 1-1 Atlético Madrid; Betis 1-4 Barcelona.