Liverpool must pull off another famous Anfield comeback if they are to reach the Europa League final and keep their hopes alive of making it into next season’s Champions League. Three weeks on from grabbing three goals in the final 25 minutes to stun Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals, Liverpool will enter the second leg of their semifinal trailing Villarreal, 1-0.
It was a painful defeat for Liverpool in Spain a week ago. The Merseysiders had acquitted themselves well against the side currently fourth in La Liga, and had even hit the post through Roberto Firmino. But in the closing minutes the previously largely tranquil game exploded into life, with action at both ends and Liverpool caught out on the break to allow Adrián López to put Villarreal in the driving seat traveling to Anfield.
It was a goal that highlighted the defensive blow that Liverpool had suffered in between the quarterfinal and semifinal. Mamadou Sakho had played a pivotal role in the win over Dortmund, even grabbing a vital goal, but his provisional suspension for a failed drugs test has disrupted a partnership between he and Dejan Lovren that was at long last giving Liverpool some much-needed defensive solidity.
Kolo Toure filled in for Sakho and was partially at fault for the injury-time goal, allowing Denis Suárez in behind him to square for Adrián. On Sunday, manager Jurgen Klopp gave Martin Skrtel a chance to stake his claim for the place alongside Lovren, but did little to aid his chances of featuring on Thursday in a 3-1 defeat at Swansea.
In what was a much-changed side from the first leg with Villarreal, another starter under the spotlight was Daniel Sturridge. The striker was conspicuous by his absence in Spain, not even making it off the bench despite being fully fit. With his future at Anfield beyond this season very much a topic of intense speculation, there will be be plenty of interest in whether, after playing the full 90 minutes against Swansea, the England international will spearhead Liverpool’s attack on Thursday.
While Sturridge did little against Swansea to press his case, fellow striker Christian Benteke came off the bench to get a goal. Still, it is hard to imagine that, needing two goals to progress to the final, Klopp will not select Liverpool’s deadliest marksman, especially in with Divock Origi still out injured.
Less of a conundrum for Klopp should be returning Emre Can to the midfield, after the Germany international shook off an ankle injury to return to training.
For Liverpool, although Klopp’s progress in his first season has brought plenty of cause for optimism for the seasons ahead, the second leg with Villarreal represents their last opportunity for tangible success this season. That is not the case for their opponents.
Villarreal beat local rivals Valencia 2-0 on Sunday to clinch fourth place in La Liga and a berth in next season’s Champions League, even if they fail to land the Europa League title. Making the win even more impressive was the face that Villarreal manager Marcelino made 10 changes to his starting lineup for the weekend’s game. At the very least then both teams should be fully rested as they vie for a place in the final against either Sevilla or Shakhtar Donetsk.
According to Westgate Superbook, Liverpool are listed as -130 favorites, while Villarreal are listed at +390. A draw comes in at +255.
Prediction: There was little to choose between the sides last week, but that last-gasp goal in the first leg could well prove decisive. Villarreal’s away record is far from intimidating this season, having won just six of 18 games on the road in La Liga and only two of six in the Europa League. But they do have an ability to score goals away from home, particularly through Cédric Bakambu, who already has nine goals in the Europa League this season.
With Liverpool’s weakened defense, it would be hard not to back against Villarreal getting an away goal that would leave Liverpool needing to score three. Even, though Klopp’s men will be boosted by the return of Emre Can and, as they showed against Dortmund, can overwhelm teams at their most intense, that task may prove too much to overcome.
Predicted score: Liverpool 2-1 Villarreal (2-2 on aggregate, Villarreal to progress on away goals)