Outsiders Villarreal plotting another surprise with Liverpool next in their sights

Unai Emery's unfashionable Spanish side have already conquered Bayern Munich and Juventus in their Champions League adventure

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At the 2019 Champions League final, Serge Aurier sat two seats along from Juan Foyth among the Tottenham Hotspur substitutes.

No footballer wants to be on the bench for the highlight match of their club career, but, in the opening minute of that final, as Liverpool’s Sadio Mane latched on to a pass and accelerated into precisely the channel that Foyth, or Aurier - both right-sided defenders - would normally patrol, they might have felt momentarily spared.

Mane immediately won a penalty and Mohamed Salah converted it for the first of two unanswered Liverpool goals.

On Wednesday, Foyth and Aurier will likely contest one starting place in an XI on the brink of another Champions League final. Neither would have anticipated that when they swapped North London earlier this season for a small, unfashionable town just off the highway that links Castellon to Valencia.

Villarreal, who take on the Liverpool of Mane, Salah and company in the first leg of their semi-final, are the clear outsiders in this European Cup’s last four. But the diverse past experience spread around their mix-and-match squad means they will not be arriving at Anfield with wide-eyed awe.

If Foyth and Aurier know only too vividly how the Liverpool juggernaut can crush an underdog’s dream, Etienne Capoue, anchor of a Villarreal midfield that tamed Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and held firm through a last-16 tie against Juventus won via a late flourish, would testify that Anfield intimidates even more than Turin or Munich.

Capoue, one of four ex-Tottenham players in the Villarreal squad, played four times at Anfield during his longer spell at Watford. He lost all four. Three of those defeats were by five-goal margins.

Francis Coquelin scarcely has happier memories of Anfield. The French midfielder lost on his last two visits there as an Arsenal player, 3-1 and 4-0, at a time - in 2017 and 2018 - that, as Villarreal coach Unai Emery described it on Tuesday: “The Liverpool project under Jurgen Klopp was developing its identity.”

Emery prefers to think of the varied backgrounds of his senior players as “proof of their credentials”.

“Many of them know English football,” he stressed, deeming it an advantage. Most also now know what it is to triumph in Europe. Emery guided Villarreal to victory in last season’s Europa League.

The same manager won the same trophy against Klopp’s Liverpool in 2016, when Emery was coaching Sevilla. “Since then Liverpool have gained greater intensity and important players have come in, like Virgil van Dijk, Thiago, Fabinho and more recently Luis Diaz,” Emery said.

“We are going to be facing the best version of Klopp’s Liverpool, because they have added patience to all their running, and to their ability to gain possession high up the field.”

Emery, like many of his ex-Premier League players, used to analyse Liverpool’s progress under Klopp from nearby, while he was managing Arsenal for 18 months from the summer of 2018: “I know how hard it is to play against them. I lost some games there.” One finished 5-1 to Liverpool; another 3-1, and Emery’s Arsenal exited the League Cup at Anfield via a penalty shoot-out following a wild 5-5 draw just a month before Emery was sacked.

Against what he calls the “best” Liverpool, Emery may not quite be able to field his best Villarreal. There are significant fitness doubts over Spain centre-forward Gerard Moreno and the winger Yeremy Pino, and Emery admits that, after the unexpected eliminations of Juventus and Bayern, “our surprise factor has reduced”.

Liverpool will fully expect a deep-lying, well marshalled Villarreal defence and an attacking strategy focused on the counter-attack in the first leg. It was Emery’s successful formula through the previous rounds.

But key individuals, reflecting on how close they are to a European Cup final, cannot help but still feel a surprise factor at how far they have come in such a short time. This time two years ago, winger Arnaut Danjuna, who scored against Juventus and Bayern, was heading towards relegation from the Premier League with Bournemouth. So was Capoue at Watford.

Gio lo Celso, meanwhile, began his European adventure this season as part of a Tottenham team defeated in a Conference League pre-qualifier at Pacos de Ferreira.

Seven months later Lo Celso was putting in a man-of-the-match display to steer Villarreal, who he joined on loan in January, past Bayern. “We all have plenty of motivation,” warned Emery, “to take the next step.”

Updated: April 27, 2022, 3:11 AM
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