Europa League semi-final comes after emotion week with Hillsborough inquests
28 April ~ At the end of an historic and highly emotional week at Liverpool, it’s back to the small business of football. Victory in the first leg of tonight’s Europa League semi-final against Villarreal would be a welcome corollary to the results of the Hillsborough inquests, though Jürgen Klopp has been careful in his pre-match assessment of his team’s chances.
Justifiably wary of a side who’ve won all six of their Europa League ties at El Madrigal this season, and who’ve also beaten both Madrid clubs there in La Liga, Klopp praised Villarreal’s “highest level of football. They are unbelievably strong with really good balance.”
The Liverpool boss is right to approach with caution. Barring a catastrophe of epic proportions, Villarreal (currently fourth in the Spanish league, four points clear of Celta Vigo with just three games to go) will play in the Champions League next term. They’re also more or less back to full strength, following the return from injury of defenders Jaume Costa and Mateo Musacchio.
While Spurs flop Roberto Soldado has struggled in recent weeks, Congolese striker Cédric Bakambu remains their biggest threat with nine goals in 11 games in the competition. A further incentive for Villarreal is the prospect of reaching their first-ever European final, having already failed at the semi-final stage three times, most recently in this competition in 2011.
Liverpool’s squad, on the other hand, has been getting alarmingly thinner by the week. The disturbing situation with Mamadou Sakho, who has opted not to contest his failed drugs test and may well be staring at a ban of up to two years, means that the Merseysiders are now without another key figure in the wake of injuries to Divock Origi, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson. Klopp has been boosted by Christian Benteke’s recovery from knee ligament damage, though his form this season suggests that he’s unlikely to fill the void left by the swiftly improving Origi.
All of this offers a measured counterpoint to the tide of optimism that followed the quarter-final triumph over Borussia Dortmund. If Liverpool are dumped out of the Europa League at this stage, it will be viewed as another failure in a thoroughly disjointed season. On the other hand, if they do succeed in making it through to the final in Basel, it can be seen a statement of intent from Klopp for next season.
For now though, he would do well to note the comments of his opposing coach, Marcelino, who is intent on making history at Villarreal. “If we manage to enjoy the match and do the things we know how to do,” he says of the Liverpool game, “I think they’re going to suffer a lot at our ground.” Rob Hughes