Villarreal will travel to Anfield on Wednesday to face Liverpool in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. While the clash between Real Madrid and Manchester City hogs the limelight, it is the fixture at Anfield that is likely to be more fiercely contested as the visitors look to continue their fairytale run. The Reds are keen to claim the quadruple this season, but tight scheduling means that they have little room for mistakes over the next few weeks.
As Villarreal plan to eliminate another giant in the Champions League, here’s our preview of Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final fixture between Liverpool and Villarreal:
Liverpool’s road to the semi-finals has been straightforward. They won all six of their games in the group stages despite the presence of Atletico Madrid and AC Milan; only Ajax and Bayern Munich could boast of the same record. A loss to Internazionale in the second leg of the Round of 16 tie, and a draw against Benfica in the second leg of the quarter-finals should have woken Jurgen Klopp to the importance of remaining attentive despite a first-leg advantage.
After a memorable 3-2 victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-finals, the Reds crushed Manchester United 4-0 and Everton 2-0 at home mid-week. Both Jordan Henderson and Luis Diaz started on the bench on Sunday, but will most likely come back to the starting XI for the semi-finals.
The Reds have managed to score at least two goals in every single game this month, a testimony to the attacking prowess that the trio of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Diogo Jota have brought to the side. Salah is just four goals away from setting the all-time record for the most number of Champions League goals while playing for an English club.
Liverpool’s jam-packed schedule saw them play seven fixtures in the first three weeks of April, with two more fixtures left to complete the hectic month. Jurgen Klopp’s expert management of his team has won praise from every quarter, and the team came out unscathed from the famously physical Merseyside derby. Roberto Firmino remains the only doubt for the squad, as he missed the game against Everton due to a foot injury.
Unai Emery’s Yellow Submarine sunk two behemoths of the game on their road to the semi-finals, as both Juventus and Bayern Munich failed to find the formula for success against the Spanish side. Villarreal might be the underdogs but they will travel to Anfield with confidence and optimism after their wins, with both the burden of expectations and a tight schedule weighing down the hosts.
Villarreal’s domestic season has been a mixed bag in contrast to their Champions League exploits. A Champions League spot remains out of their reach for now, although wins over Getafe and Valencia last week turned around their string of bad results in La Liga. Unai Emery would prefer the club to enter the finals of the Champions League over earning the club a spot in the Europa League, though, and will likely field a full-strength side to Anfield.
The absence of Gerard Moreno is a major headache for Unai Emery, with Giovani Lo Celso forced to move forward for a more aggressive attacking role. Yeremi Pino and Manu Trigueros failed to replicate the exploits of Moreno up front, with Samuel Chukwueze looking the best choice to start alongside Arnaut Danjuma Former Liverpool left-back Alberto Moreno will not be making the trip to Anfield due to a ruptured cruciate ligament. Francis Coquelin, who has recovered from his injury and joined the team for training, is expected to start on Wednesday.
HEAD TO HEAD
Liverpool and Villarreal met twice in the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2015-16. The Spanish side came out with a 1-0 win at home in the first leg, but had to exit from the tournament after suffering a 3-0 loss in the second leg at Anfield.
While the clubs don’t share much history, Unai Emery’s record of knocking out English teams from European tournaments along with his progression rate in knockout competitions – one of the best in Europe – will play a major factor in levelling the odds for the visitors.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Liverpool remain the favourites heading into the fixture despite the fairytale run of the visitors. Jurgen Klopp has proved himself to be a level-headed manager who respects the opposition’s strengths, and the Reds are unlikely to be caught with their guard down like Bayern Munich. The sheer attacking talent of Liverpool should give them an early advantage in the fixture, and if the defence remains disciplined, the Reds might come out of the fixture with a win.
Whatever the outcome on Wednesday, expect the outcome of the semi-finals to be decided only next week, as both sides have the capacity to execute remarkable comeback wins.
Liverpool Predicted XI: Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ibrahim Konate, Virgil Van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcantara, Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota, Sadio Mane
Villarreal Predicted XI: Geronimo Rulli, Juan Foyth, Raul Albiol, Pau Torres, Pervis Estupinan, Dani Parejo, Francis Coquelin, Etienne Capoue, Giovanni Lo Celso, Samuel Chukwueze, Arnaut Danjuma
When: Thursday, 28th April, 12:30 AM IST
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Where to Watch: All semi-final fixtures of the UEFA Champions League will be broadcast on Sony Ten 1, Sony Ten 2 and Sony Six HD and SD channels. All fixtures will also be streamed live on SonyLIV.
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