Liverpool arrived to friendly Villarreal, but leave wanting ‘to try to smash this team’

Andy Mitten speaks to Kolo Toure, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool fans about their trip to Villarreal, the 1-0 loss and what lies ahead in the Europa League semi-final tie.
Liverpool's Kolo Toure reacts during the team's loss to Villarreal in the Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday night. Biel Alino / AFP / April 28, 2016
Liverpool's Kolo Toure reacts during the team's loss to Villarreal in the Europa League semi-final first leg on Thursday night. Biel Alino / AFP / April 28, 2016

Villarreal’s players were all smiles.

They’d beaten Liverpool 1-0 thanks to a dramatic 92nd-minute Adrian Lopez goal which sparked huge scenes of celebration at El Madrigal. Manager Marcelino danced on the playing field; his substitutes hugged each other and sprayed the contents from their drinks bottles. His players celebrated like they’d won a cup, while the fans felt their sustained ‘Yes we can!’ chants were vindicated as they launched into yet another version of the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’.

Before the Europa League match started, both sets of fans had joined in one of the most famous songs in football. Villarreal fans also raised a flag saying ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone – 96’ out of respect to those who lost their lives in the Hillsborough stadium, when the verdict of unlawful killing was reached this week after a 27 year campaign for justice.

By the end of the game, the warmth between the sides had dissipated in this dreary Mediterranean town of 51,000.

Villarreal have a problem. The Europa League semi-finals are played over two legs, not one. The Liverpool players afterwards commented on how enthusiastically Villarreal’s players had celebrated their win. In the mixed zone, Kolo Toure watched Jonathan dos Santos high fiving and hugging.

• Read more: Andy Mitten – Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez, ‘in a brilliant moment’ shows he’s ready to be big time

• Also see: Liverpool go down in first leg but Jurgen Klopp remains defiant – in pictures

“Next week is a final and we have to give everything to try to smash this team,” said the Ivorian. “You can tell that they are really, really happy but I’m saving the memory of their happiness up for next week. I like that. I like to see how happy they are right now”. 

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was also vengeful in a diplomatic way.

“My first thought when everyone was celebrating around me was: ‘Sorry but it’s not over, you have to come to Anfield, too. Looking forward to Anfield. Holy place. And they know how strong we are. Next week will be a completely different game.”

Liverpool, who’ve already knocked out Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund by beating both at Anfield, have reason to feel confident. They matched Villarreal, who have an exceptional home record, for large parts of the game with their homegrown hero Bruno Soriano admitting:

“Liverpool are physically very strong, a level superior to almost any team I’ve played against before. They went tight with us, they disputed every fifty-fifty ball with everything they had. 

“We did well to cope and we had not only more, but better, goal chances, than them. Patience was a big factor. Normally we open teams up and it’s not so hard to craft goal chances but Liverpool did tremendous defensive work.”

The win, though, gave Spain’s fourth best team so far this season a huge lift and the possibility of an all Spanish Europa League final between Villarreal and Sevilla, plus an all Spanish Champions League final between Atletico and Real Madrid, remains.

And how could anyone deny Villarreal’s fans a chance to celebrate a late, late goal which came from a glorious counter-attacking move in the semi-final of a major competition? They have been in four major European semi-finals and lost each time. They feel they are getting closer to a final which would cap a remarkable rise.

Once again, the Yellow Submarines helped raise the mood in a depressed area hit harder than most in Spain’s economic downturn, just as they have done for over a decade by playing exciting attacking football. They have done this with mixture of homegrown players, sensible loan signings and by catching still young fallen stars like Diego Forlan and Juan Riquelme.

As a place, Villarreal is not somewhere which ever warrants a place on any tourist itinerary, though the 300 days of sunshine which makes the surrounding region perfect for growing oranges helps.

One Thursday, it was raining and the Liverpool fans travelling from Valencia looked underwhelmed as their train arrived in the town where the ceramic industry was an employment mainstay until the 2008 economic crisis. Not unreasonably, the 1,100 Liverpool supporters, who’d paid €50 (Dh210) each for a ticket expected sunshine in Spain the week before May.

“This is now a big competition for Liverpool,” said supporter Gary Tinsley from Anfield. “It’s a route into the Champions League and we’re confident. We’re on a roll. Beating Dortmund at home was a highlight and a surprise. In the round before, I actually believed we’d beat United.”

Tinsley lauded the impact of Klopp since the German’s arrival in the autumn.

“It’s not his team but he’s got the best out of Sakho and Lovren at the back,” said the fan to nods of agreement from his friends.

A lot of Liverpool fans didn’t travel to Spain. They only had two weeks to organise the trip, but many also stayed in Liverpool to hear the results of the Hillsborough inquest and attend a vigil on Wednesday evening in the city where former manager Kenny Daglish spoke.

“I’m happy for the families because they got right result,” said Tinsley, “but can you ever really be happy in such circumstances? Hillsborough should never have happened.”

Neil Madden, from Bootle in Liverpool said of the verdict: “It was sad to see the police still obstructing, still telling lies, still peddling the same untruths for two more years. And then the Sun and The Times didn’t put the story on their front page. The Sun put a stain on the city of Liverpool for years when we’ve known the truth all along.”

The Liverpool fans were greeted warmly in Villarreal, where the away stand is one of the highest structures in the town comprised of squat apartment buildings which look like they’ve been erected without any forethought of how they’d look next to each other. There are few trees, little public space, but the bright yellow flags of the town’s football team bring a dash of colour.

Framed by the ceramic factories, most of which have closed down or mothballed, Villarreal is a drab, tile clad backwater illuminated by the team who dazzle in yellow. None of Villarreal’s well renumerated first teamers live in the town as Riquelme did.

The presence of wealthy benefactor Fernando Roig helps them run as a model club. Season tickets cost as little as €150 and such low prices are needed when youth unemployment runs at 42 per cent.

Roig is a hugely popular club president who has put money into making his dream come true. They’re only 90 minutes from a first ever final, but first they must overcome a vengeful friend who has become a foe.

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Published: April 29, 2016 04:00 AM

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