The Champions League semi-finals are here again, and this season we have a double dose of Anglo-Spanish ties to savour.
While Real Madrid’s mouth-watering clash with Manchester City might grab the majority of the headlines, Villarreal against Liverpool is a fascinating undercard draw. Here are five things for Jürgen Klopp’s side to consider.
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1. Villarreal have been here before
Yes, it is highly unusual for Villarreal to be among the final four in Europe’s premier competition; without winning the Europa League last season they would have been competing in the new Conference League. But the Yellow Submarine has been in this situation before. Back in 2006, they faced English opponents in the semi-finals of their debut season in the competition. Manuel Pellegrini’s cult-favourites had knocked out Rangers and Inter Milan, and had negotiated the away leg in London admirably, only losing 1-0.
At a packed out El Madrigal (now known as the Estadio de la Cerámica), they threw everything at the Gunners, and had their chance for a golden ticket with a late penalty. If Juan Román Riquelme scored, they would have taken the tie to extra time in front of their own fans against a tiring Arsenal side. Cruelly, he saw his penalty saved by Jens Lehmann and the Yellow Sub were sunk. This weight of history is partly why there was such a celebration when they knocked Arsenal out in the semis of the Europa League last season: they hadn’t just reached a final, they had laid that ghost to rest.
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This year, they are determined to go one better. Owing to the situation in Ukraine, UEFA were forced to change the venue for the final, and just like 2006, it will be in the French capital. Romantics would say maybe the stars are aligning for them.
2. Don’t underestimate Unai Emery
The undisputed doyen of the Europa League, this is curiously the first time the Basque coach has made it beyond the last 16 of the Champions League. Having been stung with Paris Saint-Germain, his chance appeared to have passed, but he has earned the right to have another crack, and he is exceeding all expectations on this marvellous run. Liverpool will remember their previous encounter in Europe with Emery. In Klopp’s first season (2015/16), Liverpool met Sevilla in the Europa League final in Basel. Despite taking the lead, Liverpool were stunned in the second half as Sevilla came from behind to win 3-1 and complete their three-peat.
Emery has many doubters, particularly from his time in England, but he has proven time and again what an astute coach he is, especially in knockout scenarios where he is undefeated in Europe in over four years. Since Real Madrid beat his PSG side, he has triumphed in 10 two-legged ties. And since arriving at Villarreal in 2020, he has won duels against Arsenal, Manchester United, Atalanta, Juventus and Bayern Munich. Emery won’t be intimidated by Liverpool, so they cannot afford to take anything for granted.
3. Tactical approach
For those who have only seen the results and assumed Villarreal were lucky to get past Juventus and Bayern, they might be wise to reconsider. After Juve’s Dušan Vlahović scored in the opening minute of the first leg of the round of 16, Villarreal were a yellow wall of steel. Between that goal and Robert Lewandowski’s in Munich, they went 321 minutes without conceding in the competition. After the early Juve goal in Spain, Villarreal gradually grew into the game and dictated proceedings, before finding their well-deserved equaliser. In Turin, yes, they had to defend, but equally they carried a threat. Their xG was higher than that of the ‘Old Lady’, and while two of their three goals were penalties, they also missed three big chances too. That was no smash and grab.
Then to the Bayern tie, another level up in quality without a doubt. They ceded possession for large parts in the home leg, but again made effective use of the ball when they had it. Bayern did miss chances, but Villarreal also hit the post and could have taken a bigger lead to Germany. The Bavarian barrage was expected but Emery’s plan worked again, nullifying the supply lines to Lewandowski.
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They forced Bayern wide, where crosses were their only weapon, something which Pau Torres and Raúl Albiol dealt with all night. Bayern had six corners and 10 successful crosses, but only four shots on target, including Lewandowski’s goal. Villarreal bravely handled the waves of pressure, and simply waited it out, knowing those waves would recede eventually.
The goal which took them through was a masterpiece, a textbook counter-attack orchestrated by Dani Parejo playing out of pressure, Giovani Lo Celso carrying the ball, Gerard Moreno picking the perfect pass and Samu Chukwueze with the calm finish. Villarreal’s organised defensive shape and midfield was tweaked with the introduction of the pacy and unpredictable Chukwueze, allowing Emery to flick the switch and give them more bite on the break. The plan will be similar at Anfield in the first leg: resist as much as possible, hit on the break when possible, make the most of their moments, and then take it back to Spain with it all still to play for.
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4. Key players
Villarreal were dealt a massive blow with the injury to Gerard Moreno, their talismanic forward, but the scans were encouraging with the possibility that he may be available for the second leg. Despite missing much of the season through injuries, he is still the key component of Emery’s attacking plan.
The advantage they have compared to last season is the additions of Arnaut Danjuma and Lo Celso. The Dutch winger has been a revelation, scoring 10 goals in his first LaLiga season, as well as lighting up the Champions League. Lo Celso too was a smart January signing, giving them more sophistication between the lines.
At the back, Pau Torres and Albiol have been formidable, particularly in that second leg in Munich. They marshalled Lewandowski with consummate ease, and even appeared to have him frustrated and petulant, not something often seen with the Polish marksman.
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The most important player, however, is Dani Parejo. The former Valencia skipper is the beating heart of the midfield and everything goes through him. He dictates the tempo of Villarreal’s game, he organises, presses and his passing range is among the best in Europe. A very aesthetically-pleasing player too, he will be essential for them in those tough moments to get a hold of the ball and calm everything down.
5. Potential vulnerabilities
Liverpool will come with their own plan to impose their style on the semi-final, with that dynamic front three and the advancing full backs the primary threats. While Villarreal were content for Bayern to swing in crosses, they may find the underlapping movements of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold harder to adjust to. With the front three occupying the attention of the centre-backs, there are likely to be openings around their box.
Equally, Villarreal’s success thus far has been built upon keeping things tight and not falling too far behind in the ties. If Liverpool make a fast start like they have been known to, Villarreal could be out of the tie before the return leg. Their ability to come from behind is an area of weakness too. The last time they won a game having conceded first was way back in December. Since then, they have fallen behind in eight games and haven’t won any of them (though of course the draw in Munich was enough to progress). Emery will want to avoid conceding two or more at Anfield in the first leg, because then Liverpool’s direct counters will come into play.
Overall, this tie is set to be a gripping game of wills, tactical chess against intensity and holding nerves. Villarreal have been waiting nearly two decades for another shot at glory, so they won’t leave anything behind.