Villarreal face Liverpool in the Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday night – but our writers explain why Liverpool might not necessarily have things all their own way in Estadio El Madrigal.
The Reds have emerged as Europa League favourites on the back of their quarter-final heroics against Jurgen Klopp’s former side Borussia Dortmund, but former Liverpool frontman Fernando Morientes has warned his old side they would do well not to underestimate the Yellow Submarine – a team he has branded “one of the best in La Liga”.
How do you see the first leg progressing?
James: I genuinely think this is a tough one for Liverpool and they’ll need to score an away goal to give themselves a chance in the second leg. It’s been a while since Villarreal have been at this stage of a European competition, so you can imagine the El Madrigal crowd will be up for it. I also think the absence of Mamadou Sakho could be catastrophic for the Reds….
Ian: Of course, Liverpool will be happy just to avoid a defeat, and if they can score while doing so at El Madrigal, then even better. I think they will have some joy in attack but it is all about whether they can keep the back door shut. Klopp’s side aren’t effective if they are set up just to defend so I’m expecting a more open game than you might usually get in a European semi, and I think they will return to Merseyside with a positive result.
Oli: The first leg could be as tough as the Dortmund first leg was, on paper at least. Villarreal play wonderful, quick, fluid football and are a real force going forward, and I expect Marcelino Toral to set his team up to go and get a lead to take back to Anfield. However, Jurgen Klopp is not a man to set his side up to defend either, which leads me to think this will be a frantic game, and with the crowd behind them and the absence of Mamadou Sakho for the Reds I can see the Valencian club getting a positive result.
Which players should Liverpool be wary of?
Oli: Cedric Bakambu is obviously the main threat for Liverpool to think about, with 22 goals to his name this campaign including nine in European competition. He is a striker with strength and speed that will stretch the Reds’ back line and make defending a nightmare. The central midfield duo, expected to be Bruno and Trigueros, will also be vital in keeping an organised shape and deploying the high-pressure game the Madrigal side like to play.
Ian: Roberto Soldado has struggled for goals in his first season back in Spain so most of Liverpool’s attention is likely to be focused on Cedric Bakambu. The competition’s second highest scorer has been a late developer but the 23-year-old can hurt Liverpool. Holding midfielder and skipper Bruno Soriano will be key for the hosts as they try to stifle Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino.
James: I think they’re a team of few megastars and the team unit – much like Leicester – is what makes them so strong this season. But if I was Jurgen Klopp, I’d be gearing my side up to be aware of Cedric Bakambu. He’s netted 22 goals this season, but is something of a ‘streaky striker’ with many of his goals coming two at a time.
Who will be key for Liverpool?
Ian: Whoever replaces Sakho (Kolo Toure started the weekend draw with Newcastle) needs to hit the ground running. Simon Mignolet procused another howler against the Magpies and the Reds need to be able to rely on their goalkeeper in Spain.
Oli: Kolo Toure (if he replaces Sakho) will have to be on his A-game against an attack that has scored 22 goals in the competition so far. In addition, the front four for Liverpool will be crucial for Klopp’s side as they will look to be effective in possession and counter with speed.
James: I think Adam Lallana has quietly been finding a bit of form for Liverpool of late and he’s a player Klopp clearly likes. But the main issue for me is who Liverpool bring in to replace Sakho. Kolo Toure looks most likely, but Martin Skrtel and Steven Caulker (remember him) are also in their Europa League squad.
Conclusion – will Liverpool progress?
James: Everyone is expecting a Sevilla v Liverpool Europa League final, but the amount of absentees Klopp will have to deal with will make this far from easy. I fancy Villarreal to win the first leg; let’s just hope Liverpool don’t leave themselves with too big a mountain to climb in the return. If you’re forcing me for an answer though, I’m going to say they’ll suffer narrow heartache.
Oli: The first leg of this tie is particularly important for Liverpool. If they get a draw or even nick a win, I think the job is as good as done. Lose the first leg, and I can see it being a tougher challenge than Dortmund as Villarreal will set up differently at Anfield. Ultimately, I think the Reds will progress, but this could be a classic.
Ian: I think so. I fancy them to get a draw at Villarreal before finishing off the job at Anfield to reach the Europa League final.