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Liverpool did not have everything their own way in the first half of this Champions League semi-final first leg. Villarreal, as expected, set up with a deep backline and left little space in between the lines. Liverpool were not able to break them down easily, and Unai Emery must have been delighted to go in at the break with the score still level. They did not offer much in attack, but Villarreal achieved their first objective of keeping a clean sheet in the first half.
Ninety minutes is a long time to hold out against this relentless Liverpool team, though. The opening goal was fortuitous, as Jordan Henderson’s cross was deflected past the Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli.
Yet the likelihood is that Liverpool would have made the breakthrough at some point. Once they had, Villarreal were in trouble. The Reds duly dominated the remainder of the match, adding a second goal through Sadio Mane and fashioning several opportunities to score a third.
It is hard to know what the best approach is when facing a team of Liverpool’s quality. There was some criticism of Villarreal’s defensive tactics after the match, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that the tie would already be over if the Yellow Submarine had turned the first leg into an end-to-end basketball match. It is true that the Spanish side rarely threatened at Anfield, but conceding only two goals was far from a disastrous outcome.
Having said that, Villarreal will need to adopt a more front-foot approach in the return fixture on Tuesday. A 0-0 draw would have been an excellent result away from home, but that outcome this week would see Emery’s side eliminated. Playing in front of their own supporters will also compel Villarreal to commit more bodies to the attack. The fans at the Estadio de la Ceramica will be roaring on their side from the first whistle as they attempt to pull off what would be a remarkable comeback.
Villarreal’s chances should not be dismissed out of hand, even though it is difficult to see them going through to the final from here. They did knock out Juventus and Bayern Munich in previous rounds, though, while Emery has won 21 two-legged European ties on the bounce excluding his ill-fated spell at Paris Saint-Germain.
However, it is hard to argue against the contention that Villarreal are the weakest side remaining in the competition. Real Madrid have already won the La Liga title, while Manchester City and Liverpool are engaged in a two-way tussle to be crowned champions of England in a hotly contested Premier League title race.
Villarreal, by contrast, are seventh in La Liga. The only way they can qualify for the Champions League is by winning this season’s edition of it – their hopes of a top-four finish were extinguished weeks ago. They might not be successful, but Villarreal will throw everything at this semi-final second leg.
The problem for Villarreal is that this Liverpool team is at its best when given space to break into. Mohamed Salah, Luis Diaz and Sadio Mane – the three players likely to be given the nod to start up top on Tuesday – possess speed in abundance. With Villarreal forced to push up the pitch and defend with a higher line, they could be undone by Liverpool’s quick breaks forward.
On their day, the Yellow Submarine are a dangerous attacking side themselves. Arnaut Danjuma, the former Bournemouth forward who lined up against Liverpool during his time in the Premier League, is enjoying a fantastic season. Gerard Moreno is another player with a good goalscoring record in 2021/22. Villarreal have found the back of the net in all but one of their home games in La Liga since the opening weekend of the campaign.
Yet although the hosts have a decent chance of scoring on Tuesday, they will probably succumb to another defeat by arguably the most in-form team on the planet right now. Jurgen Klopp’s side have lost only one of their 25 matches since the middle of January, and that was a second-leg defeat by Inter which proved immaterial given Liverpool’s triumph in the first match.
The Reds are targeting a third Champions League final in the last five years. Back them to reach the Paris showpiece by winning a game which features goals for both sides.
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|Villarreal vs Liverpool Information|
|Teams||Villarreal vs Liverpool|
|Location||Estadio de la Ceramica, Villarreal, Spain|
|Time||Tuesday, 3 May 2022, 3.00 PM EDT|
|How to watch||CBS|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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