Seeking to pull off another remarkable Champions League upset, Villarreal travel to Anfield for the first leg of their semi-final with Liverpool on Wednesday night.
Jurgen Klopp’s side defeated Benfica 6-4 on aggregate in the quarter-finals, while the Yellow Submarine sent Bayern Munich packing to make the final four.
All eyes were on Benfica talisman Darwin Nunez during the second leg of his side’s quarter-final at Anfield, and the in-demand Uruguayan certainly delivered, but Liverpool carved their way through the veteran backline of Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi three times themselves to inch closer to continental glory.
With just under a month to go before the curtain closes on the 2021-22 campaign, Liverpool could yet add an unprecedented haul of four trophies to their brimming cabinet, although the Premier League title remains out of their hands heading into the final straight.
There was time for one last swansong for Divock Origi in Sunday’s Merseyside derby, with the Belgian attacker heading home late on against Everton after Andy Robertson had broken the deadlock, and the Reds enter the first leg with Villarreal on a three-game winning streak in all competitions.
Never before have Liverpool taken part in the semi-finals of the Champions League, FA Cup and EFL Cup in one season, and while they failed to beat both Benfica and Inter Milan during their knockout legs at Anfield, Klopp’s side had already settled the tie in the first legs.
Wednesday’s first leg will represent the eighth game of a hectic April schedule for Liverpool, who have managed to score at least two goals in every game since the start of the month, but Unai Emery and Villarreal demand plenty of respect before the Spaniard’s return to English turf.
Ironically, the Yellow Submarine were not the ones being sunk by two European heavyweights in the previous Champions League rounds, with Juventus and most recently Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich failing to find the formula for success against Emery’s well-drilled side.
After shutting Julian Nagelsmann’s side out in a 1-0 first-leg win where the margin of victory should arguably have been greater, Villarreal held their own on the Allianz Arena turf and left with a 2-1 aggregate success after Samuel Chukwueze’s 88th-minute response to Robert Lewandowski’s strike.
Emery’s men have already faced two major tests of their European mettle and should therefore travel to Merseyside with unbridled optimism about their chances of gleaning a positive result, and their La Liga fortunes have also improved with back-to-back wins over Getafe and Valencia.
Winning three and drawing one of their four Champions League games on the road since going down to Manchester United back in September, Villarreal have found the back of the net in all of those encounters on rival turf so far, but their only previous semi-final appearance in the 2005-06 season ended in defeat to English opposition in Arsenal.
The modest club from Castellon have met Liverpool twice before in the semi-finals of the 2015-16 Europa League – winning 1-0 at La Ceramica in the first leg before a 3-0 Anfield defeat – and Emery’s penchant for European knockout ties (advancing 31 times out of 37) ought to lead to a few nervous glances from the Kop on Wednesday night – only Zinedine Zidane has a better progression rate in that department.
Liverpool Champions League form:
Liverpool form (all competitions):
Villarreal Champions League form:
Villarreal form (all competitions):
We say: Liverpool 1-0 Villarreal
Juventus were thumped by Villarreal on their own turf. Bayern Munich failed to overcome Emery’s side at the Allianz Arena. There is no reason for the travelling party to believe that another remarkable away win and joyous plane ride home is not on the cards.
However, Gerard Moreno’s goalscoring and playmaking qualities will be a huge miss for Villarreal at Anfield, and while we eventually expect Liverpool to break the Yellow Submarine’s resistance and earn a first-leg advantage, they will surely have to be even more patient than they were against Everton.