After the euphoria of their remarkable comeback against Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool must return to earth on Thursday when they visit Villarreal in the first leg of their Europa League semifinal. In what was already a special occasion, going up against one of the finest teams in Europe this season and the former club of manager Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool ensured that it would be a night that Anfield will never forget. Twice being in a situation of needing three goals to progress in the second leg of their quarterfinal, Liverpool mounted a stirring fight back to progress thanks to a last-gasp winner from Dejan Lovren.
Not only did the win maintain the Merseysiders’ hopes of winning a trophy in Klopp’s first season in charge, but it kept a route open to next season’s Champions League. Yet, while they have ousted the side that were the favorites to land the Europa League, and in the semifinal draw they have avoided two-time defending champions, Sevilla, and a tricky tie against 2009 winners Shakhtar Donetsk, a tie with Villarreal promises to be far from straightforward. Klopp, though has insisted that there is no danger of his players getting ahead of themselves after the 5-4 aggregate win over Dortmund.
“It's important to understand that my players came to the semifinals because they were always ready for the moment, they never thought about the next round,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “It's important that I show the players the respect they earned and that means I don't have to speak to them about things. We didn't speak about this, we only spoke about the semifinal, or the next game in the Premier League. Nobody thinks we are halfway or something, we are here because we respect this tournament and we respect it in each round. It's not for talking about the final or Basel or something else.”
Villarreal sit fourth in La Liga with three matches remaining and look set to garner a place in the Champions League even if they don’t go onto win the Europa League. They have also lost just three times in 26 home games in all competitions this season, and have won all six of their Europa League matches at their El Madrigal stadium.
Already in this season’s competition they have knocked out Napoli, currently second in Serie A, and the third-placed side in the Bundesliga, Bayer Leverkusen. While they can’t match the European history of five-time European Cup winners Liverpool, they reached the semifinals of the Europa League five years ago, and it is almost exactly 10 years since they narrowly missed out on a Champions League final.
And current coach Marcelino dos not believe his side will have an inferiority complex when Liverpool visit El Madrigal on Thursday.
“Perhaps Liverpool are the favorites because of their history, their standing as a club and the fact they eliminated Dortmund, one of the big favorites,” he said. “But we don't consider ourselves inferior to them. We're going to give everything to try and knock out this legendary team.”
Marcelino will be unable to call upon Brazilian forward Leo Baptistao due to an abductor injury, but will still have Cédric Bakambu, who has already scored nine goals in this season’s Europa League, at his disposal.
Liverpool will be without defender Mamadou Sakho, with the club electing not to select him after he failed a drug test last month and the France international having now been provisionally banned by UEFA for 30 days. Divock Origi, Emre Can, Jordan Henderson are also unavailable, while Christian Benteke is a fitness doubt.
Prediction: Liverpool’s list of absentees represents a major blow to their hopes of coming away from El Madrigal with a positive result. Sakho’s athleticism will be missed against the pace of Bakambu, who could have plenty of joy against Lovren and Kolo Toure. Can is also a major loss in the center of midfield. While Liverpool still possess the attacking quality to grab an away goal, Villarreal could come away with a first-leg lead.
Predicted score: Villarreal 2-1 Liverpool
Kickoff time: 3:05 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1, ESPN Deportes