These days, mere qualification for the Champions League ranks as success in north London.

Neither Arsenal nor Tottenham were able to finish in the Premier League’s top four last season and it’s most likely one (or maybe both) will have agonisingly missed out on the group stage again when the 2022-23 version gets underway in September. As the momentum shifts back and forth ahead of a pivotal and potentially all-or-nothing derby at Spurs on May 12, Villarreal’s run to the Champions League semi-finals provides a curious juxtaposition.

Led by former Arsenal manager Unai Emery, there are 12 players with experience of playing in England on the Villarreal squad.

Dani Parejo lived in Brentford during a short loan stay at Queens Park Rangers in 2008, when he struggled to understand manager Iain Dowie’s accent and couldn’t quite believe how much they cooked with butter. Alfonso Pedraza pitched up at Elland Road two days after fifth-tier Sutton United dumped Garry Monk’s Leeds United out of the FA Cup in January 2017. The left-back was on a return flight back to Spain a year before Marcelo Bielsa arrived and started a revolution.

Inevitably, more attention has focused on the north London connection.

When Emery was in charge of Arsenal, they made Lille winger Nicolas Pepe their most expensive signing ever, paying a still jaw-dropping €80 million. The 15 players Emery used to eliminate Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals two weeks ago cost Villarreal less than that figure combined.

Among them are alumni of Arsenal and Tottenham, players who have been characterised over the years as flops, misfits, the unfulfilled, the supposedly not good enough.

Some, including Etienne Capoue, Francis Coquelin and Juan Foyth, already played a role in last season’s Europa League triumph, when Villarreal (population 50,000) surpassed 1987-88 Cup-Winners’ Cup victors Mechelen of Belgium (pop. 86,000) in becoming the smallest of small-town clubs ever to lift a European trophy. Serge Aurier arrived as a free agent in October, and Giovani Lo Celso joined on deadline day in January after Villarreal had already made it past the group stage.

They rarely all start together. But each one was on hand to enforce another early exit from this competition upon Juventus in the last 16.

It was Capoue who spotted Parejo’s run for Villarreal’s deserved equaliser in the first leg of that tie at their La Ceramica home.