Liverpool will face Villarreal on Thursday evening in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final. The Reds will hope to bring back a positive result for the home time at Anfield and progress to the final of the competition.
Liverpool are just three games away from ending their season with European silverware, with Thursday’s trip against Villarreal in the semi-finals the latest hurdle. Jurgen Klopp engineered a 5-4 comeback against Borussia Dortmund in the quarter finals, despite looking dead and buried when they were 3-1 down.
The Reds didn’t give in despite Marco Reus counteracting Philippe Coutinho’s goal, with goals from Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren marking the most dramatic of turnarounds for Liverpool. The result kept their season alive, with the Merseyside outfit already out of the FA Cup and Premier League top four race, while also suffering a penalty shootout defeat in the Capital One Cup.
Since arriving at the club, Jurgen Klopp has placed increasing importance on the Europa League competition and it poses their greatest chance of achieving Champions League football next season. Thus, it is likely that his side will come out swinging on Thursday night, hoping to remain in control of the tie and bring back a positive result to Anfield for the crucial second leg.
Liverpool are the first team ever to have gone 12 games unbeaten in a single Europa League campaign. Having knocked out the likes of Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, the Reds can certainly produce when it matters and despite the impressive form of Villarreal, Jurgen Klopp’s side have proved they can match anyone in the competition.
Villarreal can be considered a real test for Liverpool, with the Spanish outfit fighting for fourth place in La Liga at a points tally of 61, four ahead of Celta Vigo with three games to go. If they do retain their top four place, they will gain access to the playoffs of the Champions League next season even if they fail to win the Europa League.
The Spaniards have already knocked out Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen on their way to the semi-final and have a perfect record at home in Europe with six wins. During that time they have conceded just one goal. However, the hosts have won none of their previous 10 games against English opposition.
Denis Suarez has proven to be a key player for Villarreal this season after moving from Barcelona. He has established himself as an integral part of the midfield and will no doubt play a huge part in Thursday’s crunch tie. Cedric Bakambu is in red hot form for the Spaniards, having scored 12 goals in the league and another nine in the Europa League. Leo Baptistao is another name that Liverpool will need to keep an eye on if they wish to progress to the final of the competition.
Liverpool will face a selection dilemma in defence following the omission of Mamadou Sakho for failing a drugs test. The Frenchman could be banned for up to two years but with mitigation it could be pulled down to six months. Therefore, Lucas or Kolo Toure could get the nod to partner Dejan Lovren.
Emre Can and Jordan Henderson remain sidelined through injury and thus Joe Allen, who has impressed in recent weeks will feature alongside James Milner. The Englishman has contributed with several assists this season and could have a key role to play.
Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana are set to add the attacking flair to the side and offer support to Daniel Sturridge. With Origi out with an ankle injury which has reportedly ended his season, Thursday is a great chance for Sturridge to show just what he is capable of.
I suspect Jurgen Klopp will field a defensive quartet of Moreno, Lovren, Lucas and Clyne on Thursday night but Kolo Toure offers another avenue to choose from if the German opts to push Lucas into midfield. Joe Allen has caught the eye following Henderson’s injury and he could play a key part in keeping hold of possession for the Reds on Thursday night while James Milner will offer more going forward.
Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino’s partnership has excited Liverpool fans throughout the season and the Brazilians will look to have a similar impact against Villarreal with Adam Lallana for support. The trio will play behind the lone strike force of Daniel Sturridge, who will need to work hard to win the ball back for the Reds and prevent a continuous wave of pressure.
Prediction: Villarreal 1-1 Liverpool