With 26 goals in all competitions this season, a starting berth in Spain’s first XI for this summer’s Euros, and top billing in tonight’s Europa League semi-final against Arsenal, people are starting to talk about Gerard Moreno – well, you can’t have everything.
It’s been a long slow climb to the top for the 29-year-old centre forward and he has enjoyed the relative anonymity along the way.
‘I don’t really like people talking about me that much,’ he says in the build-up to the biggest game of his life. ‘I don’t like to see myself in the news. I know it goes with our profession but if we’re not in the spotlight it’s not something I lose sleep over.’
Gerard Moreno celebrates after helping Villarreal reach the semi-finals of the Europa League
That’s not to say he shrinks when the bright lights are on him. He’s got five goals in six starts for Spain and is now Luis Enrique’s No 9. He’s also hugely popular with ex-player pundits who see him as the antithesis of a more mollycoddled, micro-managed, modern player.
There’s a long scar on his chin from an accident he had aged six, falling face first from the top of a goal to retrieve a ball. He needed 37 stitches and also sports a chipped front tooth from another misadventure.
Some of his goals are in keeping with that image – scrappy and straight from the classic poacher’s repertoire. But there is grace to go with the gristle.
The Spain striker has scored 26 goals in all competitions for the LaLiga side so far this season
His build-up play outside the area for a centre forward is widely recognised as second to only Karim Benzema’s in Spain, and when he dummied Levante’s Oscar Duarte to score in a recent 5-1 Villarreal win, and the defender disappeared from the television frame so disorientated was he, it was reminiscent of Jerome Boateng being bamboozled by Lionel Messi in the Champions League.
‘I have learnt year by year to be more than just a scorer,’ he says. ‘I was always a centre forward but maybe when Quique Sanchez Flores worked with me at Espanyol he encouraged me to drop off and be more involved.’
Unai Emery has used him this season both through the middle and coming off the right. The tutoring from the former Arsenal boss is intense – he had a one-to-one meeting with the manager on the morning of this interview.
Emery knows the Arsenal players well, that could be an advantage couldn’t it? ‘They know him well too,’ Moreno shoots back.
‘Unai is a winner, he works very hard, he’s on top of every little detail. He’s a big part of the success this season in Europe because of the way he prepares the games. His drive is contagious. He has experience in this competition and hopefully that can improve our chances.’
Moreno has described his manager, former Asenal boss Unai Emery (right), as a ‘winner’
Moreno was brought up in a football family. His dad played in Spain’s third tier and his brother reached the same level but had bad luck with injuries. When he was eight, young Gerard joined Espanyol and there’s footage of him as a ball boy celebrating a goal with one of his heroes, Espanyol forward Raul Tamudo.
Moreno had to move away from Espanyol to make his name at Badalona and then in Villarreal’s impressive youth system. It was back at Espanyol that he grew into one of Spain’s best strikers and Villarreal bought him in 2018 for €20million (£17.3m).
They are a good fit for him. It’s an underdog club who only reached Spain’s top flight for the first time in 1998 and whose achievements since then have gone far beyond their size and resources.
They are also the epitome of meritocracy: they’ve done things the right way and European football has regularly been the reward.
Moreno is mobbed after scoring in Villareal’s quarter-final second leg against Dinamo Zagreb
It was no surprise when they were at the forefront of the backlash to the European Super League and its idea of a majority of wealthy permanent members and just a token clutch of clubs earning a temporary pass to join.
‘Everyone wants to get into the Champions League but it is the team that has earned it that should be there,’ Moreno says.
‘We have earned the right to play a Europa League semi-final. You see Arsenal, Manchester, Roma: from big world cities. And we have managed to get Villarreal in among them.
‘Hopefully we can be the first group to get this club to a final. This is a very important game for us, it’s the fifth European semi-final and we want to break that barrier and make history.’
Arsenal stand in the way of Villarreal reaching the first European final in their history
He says he was an avid watcher of English football but two young daughters now limit time to watch so many games. A family man at a family club who talks warmly about the way Villarreal have filled the stadium with cardboard cut-out fans, each one bearing the image of a genuine season ticket holder.
‘It gives you the sense that the stadium isn’t empty but of course we would like the fans to be there, to be able to enjoy this semi-final,’ he says.
And back on the subject of earning he adds: ‘What’s nice about football is that smaller teams can grow, that they can play the big teams. It’s great that they can go to the Champions League if they have earned it on the pitch.
‘Maybe the Champions League and the European competitions do have to be strengthened, but it has to be through meritocracy.’
Villarreal are here on merit, and so is Moreno.