Liverpool’s reward for getting past Borussia Dortmund in the last eight is a semi-final encounter with high flying Spanish outfit Villarreal.
Liverpool will enter the tie as favourites to secure a final berth, possibly against a Sevilla side looking for an impressive third Europa League triumph in a row.
Villarreal are currently fourth in La Liga on 61 points, four ahead of fifth-placed Celta Vigo. Only a disastrous run of form will prevent them from securing a Champions League qualifying spot next year. They have the third best defence in La Liga, only having conceded more than the superbly organised Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and Luis Enrique’s Barcelona.
At home, they have managed wins over Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla so far this season and came from 2-0 down against Barcelona to draw with the Catalan outfit. Villarreal’s main man, Cedric Bakambu, has scored 22 goals this season. Nine of them have come in just eleven Europa League appearances, and four of his goals came against Sparta Prague in the quarter-finals.
They also have Roberto Soldado, the former Spurs forward, in their ranks, who has rediscovered his form since returning to his homeland. They have beaten some impressive teams on their way to the last four, including a Napoli side sitting second in Serie A and Bayer Leverkusen, who sit third in the Bundesliga.
However, their domestic form has been patchy of late with just two wins from their last five league games, recently going down 2-1 against a struggling Rayo Vallecano as well as a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid. On a positive note for Liverpool, Villarreal have a poor record against English sides, failing to win any of their last ten encounters against them.
In contrast to the high flying Villarreal, Liverpool sit in an underwhelming seventh place in the Premier League. That being said, their position cannot be taken at face value as Liverpool do have a game in hand over those immediately above them. Importantly, Liverpool are on a massive high after a superb comeback victory over Dortmund in the last eight.
A feat made even more impressive when you consider Dortmund’s dismantling of Tottenham Hotspur in the previous round. They consolidated that win with a 2-1 victory over Bournemouth and a 4-0 demolition of Everton in the Merseyside derby.
Another possible advantage Liverpool have over Villarreal is that they are less dependent on individuals, with their goals spread evenly throughout the team with Philippe Coutinho on twelve, Daniel Sturridge on eleven and Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi on ten apiece.
Perhaps Liverpool’s greatest advantage is that they have been drawn as the away side in the first leg, which means that Villarreal will have to deal with the dreaded ‘Anfield effect’ in the second leg, something that proved too much for an excellent Dortmund side.
Aside from the prospect of winning some silverware, Liverpool will have other motivating factors when they come up against Villarreal. With Champions League qualification through league participation looking highly unlikely unless Manchester United, West Ham and Arsenal massively falter between now and the end of the season, winning the Europa League is their best avenue for participation amongst Europe’s elite next season.
Either way, let’s hope this tie is as entertaining as Liverpool’s last one.
Simon Callan, Pundit Arena