Villarreal need Champions League miracle against comeback kings Liverpool

Emery's side go into Tuesday's semi-final second leg in Spain 2-0 down and playing a team 'full of confidence'

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Two goals ahead after one leg of a cup tie is, coaches routinely warn, a “dangerous” scoreline. Jurgen Klopp has been telling his players and the supporters of Liverpool that rather often in the past two months. They would be forgiven for thinking he says so just for effect.

Liverpool cruised past Inter Milan in the last 16 of a Champions League campaign that is pointing very firmly towards the final after bringing home from Milan a 2-0 lead. They would lose the home leg 1-0 but without ever looking like they had lost control of that tie. They won 3-1 at Benfica in the next round, and, yes, drew 3-3 in the Anfield leg, but for that game Klopp had rested a number of senior players from the starting line-up.

Tuesday’s outing at Villarreal is not an opportunity for wholesale rotations even if Klopp has to be mindful of the freshness and stamina of his key men with the tight race for the Premier League entering its last stretch. But the nature of the 2-0 result Liverpool achieved in the first leg of the semi-final against the Spanish underdogs might tempt fans to think several senior players could be rested without the outcome being jeopardised.

Villarreal managed no shots on target at Anfield. They so seldom pushed back at Liverpool’s stifling high press that even having the ball in the opposition half began to seem like a triumph. “They were better than us in their stadium,” acknowledged Unai Emery, the Villarreal manager “But we defended well to keep their advantage down.”

Emery has asked his team for another show of what he describes as Villarreal’s “recognised” defensive strengths, the stubborn resistance that withstood Juventus and Bayern Munich in previous rounds, supplemented by “finding something we never found at Anfield, but which is part of our game: creating chances.” One blessing is the likely availability of his best all-round striker Gerard Moreno, who missed the first leg with injury.

“There’s the home ground factor, as well,” said Emery. “That worked in Liverpool’s favour in the first leg. Our fans will be ready. What’s great about this club is that the whole town feels it belongs to them. I want people to come and enjoy a Champions League semi-final.”

Liverpool 2 Villarreal 0: player ratings

The town, with its population of around 50,000 – less than the number of seats in Anfield – has only once before reached the last four of Europe’s principal club competition, when, in 2006, they lost narrowly to Arsenal.

Emery has known some dramatic turnarounds in Europe. He has a decent one on his recent CV, when, as manager of Arsenal in 2019, he overcame a 3-1 first leg deficit in a Europa League last-16 tie against Rennes via a 3-0 second leg home win. He might also take inspiration from a famous see-saw Champions League quarter-final won by a provincial Spanish club managed by his close friend Javier Irureta 18 seasons ago: That was Deportivo La Coruna 4, AC Milan 0, after Milan had won the Italy leg 4-1.

Emery was also reminded, as he spoke to reporters, of his proximity to a stunning reverse of more recent memory, when Paris Saint-Germain visited Barcelona in 2017 armed with a 4-0 lead from the Parc des Princes leg. Barcelona progressed, 6-1 winners at Camp Nou.

The unfortunate Emery was manager of PSG at the time. More than five years on, he cannot resist a veiled barb at the refereeing during that Barcelona comeback, in the era before VAR became standard. “I am not looking at outside precedents for what we need to do,” said Emery. “We know what we are capable of, and making up a two-goal deficit is hard. But we’ve played well at home, we see good refereeing these days and we have a good connection with our fans.”

How Villarreal and Liverpool reached the semi-finals

Peer too closely at the great comebacks of modern Champions League history, and the club you find featuring a great deal is Liverpool – and not as the ambushed, beaten victims. Most famously, they won their fifth European Cup from 3-0 down at half-time in Istanbul, doing to Milan, who lost that final on penalties, what Deportivo had done the previous season. A highlight of the Klopp era is the sensational turnaround of a 3-0 first-leg deficit to Barcelona in the 2009 semi-final. Liverpool won the Anfield leg 4-0.

Look too closely at the current Liverpool juggernaut and Emery can scarcely be encouraged, either. In 56 matches this season, Klopp’s team have lost three times. All were defeats by a single goal – including Inter’s win at Anfield in the tie they lost – and only for 14 minutes have Liverpool trailed in matches by a two-goal margin.

“We are playing a side full of confidence,” Emery admitted, with a smile. “We’re going to have to find something in them, some weakness that nobody else has managed to do.”

Updated: May 03, 2022, 2:55 AM
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