When Liverpool’s Europa League campaign kicked off all the way back in September, there aren’t too many out there that would have predicted that in late April they’d still be unbeaten in the competition and only 180-minutes away from booking a trip to Basel.
There haven’t been any potentially “easier” match-ups left since the Round of 32; in the final four even suggesting that a tie is bordering on “favourable” is enough to get you roughed up and kicked-out of Europe at the last checkpoint — if we even try that “one foot in the final” nonsense, Villarreal CF is going to stomp all over it.
A little luck goes a long way in knock-out competitions, but you need more than that to make it this far in the Europa League and it’s been anything but a cakewalk for the Spanish side. German giants Bayern Leverkusen, Italian high fliers Napoli and Czech powerhouses Sparta Prague have all felt the wrath of the team affectionately known as “The Yellow Submarine” and they’ll be looking to torpedo Reds boss Jurgen Klopp’s chances of guiding his side to a second final since taking over at Anfield back in October.
“They are a pretty strong team and are fourth in the Spanish league,” the German manager told UEFA’s official website in the build-up to their visit to Estadio El Madrigal. “They are having a wonderful season, they are a wonderful club in a small city. It is clear there are a lot of smart people behind their success,” explained Klopp, full of praise for the Spaniards. “We have to play brave football. We are now in the semi-finals,” mused the Liverpool boss. “We got there because we deserved it, and now we have to show we are strong enough to go through.”
That, of course, will be decidedly harder with the club voluntarily sidelining Mamadou Sakho from action after a failed drug test and Divock Origi’s serious ankle injury keeping the striker out of action for the foreseeable future. Both players have been key players in the Reds run to the semi-finals and will be sorely missed. Although Daniel Sturridge is almost certain to start up front, Klopp’s options at the back are severely limited. Veteran defenders Kolo Toure and the fit again Martin Skrtel have been dicey at best and with both Emre Can and Jordan Henderson missing from the midfield, it’s unlikely that Lucas will be called on to fill the void with the Brazilian’s talents required further up the pitch.
Results may be improving for Liverpool now that they’ve got a better handle on the high-press, full throttle style of football that Klopp likes to play, but as we saw at the weekend, they remain highly vulnerable at the back — something that will bode well for Villarreal boss Marcelino Garcia Toral.
Despite being fourth in La Liga, the offensive side of the game has been a problem for the Yellow Submarine this season; they last scored a goal in the 2-1 loss to Rayo Vallecano on April 17th, but they can take heart from the fact that Newcastle United, having been two goals down to their visitors at the break, scored with their only shots on net at the weekend to eke out an unlikely draw. Cedric Bakambu, who has eleven goals in nine Europa League appearances, is the obvious danger man, but the likes of Manu Trigueros, Denis Suarez and Samu Castillejo all have the ability to cause problems.
Now, whether or not they will remains to be seen. Winless in their last ten outings against English opposition, snapping that streak is going to be difficult for the Spaniards or the perfect background music as they charge headfirst towards Switzerland. In a tie as finely poised as this one, it often comes down to which team wants it more — I think we’ll get a good idea of which one that is tomorrow night.