Sometimes blind draws just work. If Villarreal had drawn Sevilla, it would feel a bit of a letdown to play a team from your own league in the semi (never mind that we haven't done well against them); Shaktar Donetsk would have seen less travelling support from either side, and the English-speaking media would have focused on Sevilla-Liverpool anyway. But Villarreal--the Yellow Submarine--and Liverpool? Just magic.
Amid all the excitement and review of Liverpool's storied past (thrown into focus even more by yesterday's events), it's important to remember that apart from a League Cup win in 2012, it's been awhile--ten years--since Liverpool won a major trophy. They aren't likely to finish in the top four in the EPL this season. For the Reds, victory over Villarreal and progression to the EL Final would be a first step in a hoped-for progression back to the top under Jürgen Klopp.
Villarreal, on the other hand, has fallen at this stage twice before in the EL, and once in the CL. To progress to a final of a major competition would be a tremendous achievement, and so this match Thursday is quite honestly the biggest match for Villarreal since that Champions League semifinal match against Arsenal.
Liverpool: Injuries to Emre Can and Divock Origi , and the suspension of Mamadou Sakho, has bruised the confidence of the Reds' fans to some degree, but they may get Cristian Benteke back--he made the trip, anyway. They do have plenty of options--Lovren, Skrtel, Clyne, Moreno, even Kolo Touré in defense, Milner, Lucas Leiva, Lallana, Joe Allen, Coutinho in midfield. But Origi may be the guy they struggle to replace upfront.
Villarreal: Apart from Leo Baptistāo, the Submarine enters this match healthy. But they enter it on a real downer--they haven't scored in their last 250 minutes of play in La Liga, and haven't really created much since the first half in Prague against a team we were supposed to defeat. Is it just a sign that we have been looking ahead to Liverpool, or are there deeper problems?
Keys to the Game for Villarreal:
First: Marcelino has to get his lineup right. A more defensive midfielder (Pina) or an attacking one (Trigueros)? The more experienced Jonathan dos Santos, or the flashy but lighter-weight Castillejo? And what of the back four--which two of Bailly, Musacchio, and Ruiz will start?
Second: Villarreal can't let Liverpool get great chances to score through high pressing. We have to move the ball out of our area quickly.
Third: Midfield will be key. Coutinho, as Santi Cazorla said today, is the player most everything goes through for them. Bruno is our key player in terms of winning the ball back, supporting the attack (as well as a free kick specialist) but Denis Suarez has to be the guy who provides width in our attack. If he gets forced inside too much, as happened against Real Madrid, he gets lost.
Fourth: Villarreal have to create good scoring chances--a number of them. Cedric Bakambu is probably the guy we'd think is most likely to score (and is certainly the Villarreal player the Liverpool press has said the most about) but the key for Villarreal is creating chances. The Yellow Subarine is LAST in La Liga in shots per game (8.9; most teams have at least 11 or 12), and only 3.5 on target, 17th in La Liga. But in the Europa League, we've generally found it easier going. Against Bayer Leverkusen, we had 12 shots in the first leg at home; against Sparta, an astonishing 27!
Keys to the Game for Liverpool:
First: Liverpool supporters all say the team's weak link is Mignolet in goal. Liverpool need to minimze that weakness, and/or he needs to play an outstanding game.
Second: Liverpool needs to create turnovers in Villarreal's defensive third or half and take advantage.
Third: Take advantage of set pieces. The goal that got them here was a Lovren header in injury time--with their attacking options limited by Origi's absence, that could be key again.
What the coaches said:
Marcelino--"Liverpool are the favorites given their history and the fact they eliminated Dortmund, but we don't feel inferior. We don't have any pressure on us...I felt more pressure in the previous knockout ties.
Klopp--"We'll be prepared for our best game. They've made a lot of good decisions to be here." (Asked how best to deal with Soldado and Bakambu): "To avoid passes to them--maybe that's the best idea."
Between the Spanish press and English press asking questions in two languages, and Klopp responding in English with a German accent, apparently the translator had quite a challenge, and got a nice ovation at the end of it! Don't know of that was one of our club folks, or someone UEFA provided--I assume the latter.
There seems to be a general consensus--at least between me, latortillablanca of Liverpool Offside and WhoScored--that Villarreal will win this match 2-1. I'm always leery of such astonishing agreement, but 2-1 is what I wrote earlier, so I'll stick with it.
ENDAVANT VILLARREAL!!! VAMOS SUBMARINO AMARILLO!