Liverpool welcome Villarreal to Anfield on Thursday night, hoping to overturn a 1-0 deficit and progress to the final of the Europa League. The competition would ensure the Reds gain Champions League football next season and mark the transformation they have made since Jurgen Klopp has taken charge.
Following a disappointing league campaign that has seen The Reds lose out on their goal of a top four Champions League spot, Liverpool’s season will be decided on Thursday night. Win, and they’re through to the final to face either Shaktar Donetsk or the holders Sevilla. Lose, and their season will peter out. Jurgen Klopp certainly wasn’t exaggerating when he said this game is for the Liverpool world and come the final whistle, Anfield will either be making some serious noise, or fans will look back on what could have been this season.
In the first leg, for the most part Liverpool sat back and soaked up the pressure from Villarreal. The Spanish side dominated the lion’s share of possession and showed flashes of real attacking prowess, with Kolo Toure and Dejan Lovren having to make a number of key interceptions to prevent a shot on goal. However, the Reds looked relatively comfortable and there was very little evidence to suggest that Liverpool would be really up against it in the second leg. The first half mustered up few chances for either side, with Joe Allen having the best opportunity to put Klopp’s side ahead. However, his shot failed to veer in either direction, resulting in a comfortable save. Roberto Firmino also came close when his low shot hit the outside of the post. The Reds looked set for a credible draw in Spain, but a rash lapse in concentration resulted in Adrian Lopez tapping in Denis Suarez’s low cross.
Despite the late sucker punch, the semi final remains firmly in the balance, with the dismantling of Borussia Dortmund at Anfield showing just what Klopp’s side are capable of. Liverpool will have to score at least twice to go through in ninety minutes but an away goal for Villarreal would put the task to a minimum of three. The main source of disappointment from the Liverpool fans was the rather conservative approach taken. The game looked up for grabs with roughly an hour on the clock and many were hoping for the introduction of Sturridge to try and search for a vital away goal. However, the substitution never came, with Christian Benteke making a late cameo performance instead. One thing is for sure, Liverpool will show much more attacking intent on Thursday night as they look to give everything in search of a place in the final at Basel.
In his pre-match press conference, Jurgen Klopp stated “If we play our best then we can go to the final. These players gave me a lot of positive signs about their qualities. We are ready. All we did since October was to be perfectly prepared for a game like this. We are not expecting a guarantee to go to the final. We are expecting everything and see what we get for it.”
In contrast to Liverpool, Villarreal have already gained their place in the Champions League for next season after securing fourth place in La Liga to mark off an impressive campaign. The Spaniards have shown real guile and intent going forward which has made them such a threat for several teams, in both the league and Europe. Marcelino, who has taken the club remarkably far since joining, stated that:
“Liverpool as a club have an extraordinary group of footballers when you consider Benteke cost the whole turnover as Villarreal as a club. But this group of players need to be proud of what they have achieved as we are already qualified for the Champions League. This is an occasion to be celebrated.”
While their place in the Champions League is confirmed, Villarreal will certainly show the same desire as Liverpool to try and gain some silverware to cap off their success this season. Both sides will be itching to get to Basel and thus it promises to be one hell of a tie on Thursday night.
Liverpool will be boosted by the return of Emre Can, who sustained a nasty ankle injury against Everton a few weeks back. The German looked set to miss out on the tie but now will offer Jurgen Klopp a major lift heading into the match. Furthermore, Daniel Sturridge is pushing for a start with the England striker in good form of late. However, Klopp may decide to continue with the false nine of Roberto Firmino.
Villarreal will have a fully fit squad to choose from, with Eric Bailly and Leo Baptistao recovering from injuries.
Predicted Line Up
Simon Mignolet will no doubt feature in goal for Liverpool while I expect the back four to consist of Nathaniel Clyne, Kolo Toure, Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno. Toure was the standout performer in the first leg and despite a return for Emre Can that could see Lucas Leiva pushed back into defence, I would back the Ivorian to start. If fit enough, Emre Can will offer cover to the defence against the speed of the Villarreal attacks.
Despite Sturridge’s good form and my desire to see him feature in the starting line up on Thursday night, I expect Klopp to persist with a false nine formation due to Firmino’s pressing style. However, if Sturridge does get the nod then James Milner could start alongside Can, giving Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino the licence to Rome forward and add the creative spark to the side. Joe Allen offers another option in the middle of the park should Can not be fit enough to start.
Prediction: Liverpool 3-1 Villarreal.