Europa League semi-final preview: Villarreal v Liverpool
Villarreal host Liverpool in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final, with both sides confident of going on to lift the trophy.
Liverpool needed one of the most dramatic comebacks in the competition’s history to get past Borussia Dortmund in the last round, while Villarreal comfortably accounted for Sparta Prague.
The Yellow Submarine have home advantage in the first leg but the decisive match is taking place at Anfield, which could well be the key to this unpredictable semi-final.
Jürgen Klopp believes Villarreal are “unbelievably strong” opponents to face in the last four.
“It’s not about dreaming of the Champions League or the final – we have not played one minute in the semi-final so how could we do that?” he said.
“Villarreal are not there because all the other opponents could not play football. They are unbelievably strong. It’s not a problem. It’s a nice opportunity to have these two games.”
Marcelino, Villarreal’s coach, is determined to lead his side to the final, which will be played at St. Jakob-Park, home to FC Basel from the Swiss Super League, on May 18.
He said: “Liverpool have a great history and play in unique surroundings. We will have a wonderful challenge. We have got this far on merit, and now we want to go one further.”
Head to head
Liverpool and Villarreal have never met in a competitive match before, but the two sides did play in a friendly match in 2008, with that game ending in a 0-0 stalemate at El Madrigal.
Villarreal’s home form has been superb in this year’s Europa League and they have won all six of their games in front of their own fans, although they have not beaten opponents from the Premier League in their last 10 attempts.
The only club remaining in the competition who are unbeaten from the start of the group stage is Liverpool, but they have only won one of their six away trips, drawing their other five games.
Villarreal have never been further than the semi-finals of the tournament and on both of their previous visits to the last four they were beaten by the eventual winners of the competition: Valencia in 2003/04 and Porto in 2010/11. Liverpool, who won the UEFA Cup in 2001, were beaten by Atlético Madrid in their last Europa League semi-final appearance six years ago.
Fantasy players to watch: Villarreal
Villarreal are a team mostly without egos or stars, but Cédric Bakambu has been a huge player for them in their run to the semi-finals of the Europa League. With nine goals in the competition so far, Bakambu, who is available at $7,000 on DraftKings UK, has hit 23 goals in 46 games for club and country this season.
Denis Suárez has also been terrific in Villarreal’s European run, with the 22-year-old contributing six assists for a WhoScored rating of 7.24 for his performances in the Europa League this year.
At the back, Víctor Ruiz has been one of the outstanding defenders in Spain all season, helping Villarreal to a top-four place in La Liga, and it will be tough for Liverpool to find a way past him in this tie.
Fantasy players to watch: Liverpool
While Villarreal rely fairly heavily on Bakambu for their goals, Liverpool have shared them throughout the team, with no one player scoring heavily over the course of the season.
No player has scored more than twice in Europe for Liverpool, with Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi and Philippe Coutinho among the Reds’ goal threats. But it is James Milner who has been Liverpool’s star man in Europe this season, earning a WhoScored rating of 7.43 across his nine starts in the Europa League.
England international Milner provided two assists for his side in their comeback against Dortmund, while he has also scored twice in the competition this season and has taken the captain’s armband when Jordan Henderson has been unavailable due to injury.
In goal, Simon Mignolet has a habit of making serious mistakes but he is a penalty specialist and has saved seven spot kicks over the course of his career so far, three of them while at Liverpool.