Quadruple-chasing Liverpool expose limitations of Emery’s Villarreal

Published April 29, 2022
LIVERPOOL: Liverpool’s Sadio Mane (C) scores during the Champions League semi-final first leg against Villarreal at Anfield.—AFP
LIVERPOOL: Liverpool’s Sadio Mane (C) scores during the Champions League semi-final first leg against Villarreal at Anfield.—AFP

LIVERPOOL: As Liverpool fans all around Anfield celebrated their Champions League semi-final first leg victory over Villarreal, it was fitting they choose a Beatles song to serenade the mastermind of their bid for football immortality.

In recent months, Jurgen Klopp has been feted by supporters who have turned the Beatles’ ‘I feel fine’ into a song of praise for the Liverpool manager.

“Jurgen said to me, you know. We’ll win the Premier League, you know. He said so. I’m in love with him and I feel fine,” they chant from the Kop.

Never has the work of Merseyside’s most famous musical sons been more appropriate than on Wednesday.

Liverpool won 2-0 against a Villarreal team nicknamed the ‘Yellow Submarine’ since the 1960s when the Spanish club’s fans used the Beatles song in tribute to their yellow shirts.

VILLARREAL’S Francis Coquelin (L) challenges Ibrahima Konate of Liverpool.—AFP
VILLARREAL’S Francis Coquelin (L) challenges Ibrahima Konate of Liverpool.—AFP

Villarreal tried to frustrate Liverpool with a defensive game-plan — a formula that had earned them shock wins over Juventus and Bayern Munich in the previous two rounds — but Klopp’s men torpedoed them with a patient display.

It took 53 minutes to break down Villarreal’s stubborn rearguard action, when Jordan Henderson’s cross deflected off Pervis Estupinan and looped into the net. Sadio Mane slotted in a second two minutes later.

“They are a very organised team and we knew they would make it difficult. It was just important that we kept going and believed that we would eventually break them down. We did that with two good goals,” said Henderson. “Majority of the game, our counter-press was really good. It made it difficult for them. But the game is still alive and it will be tough in Villarreal.”

Barring a huge upset when the sides meet again in southern Spain in six days’ time, Liverpool’s season will finish with a third Champions League final in five seasons in Paris on May 28.

Yet the Reds have more than a seventh European Cup triumph, and second of Klopp’s reign, in their sights.

They are chasing an unprecedented quadruple.

No English team has ever won all four major trophies in one season, not even Arsenal’s 2004 ‘Invincibles’ or Manchester United’s 1999 treble winners.

For Liverpool, who have already won this season’s League Cup, that is the historic goal now.

They sit one point behind Premier League leaders Manchester City with five games left and face Chelsea in the FA Cup final in May.

Needing a slip from City to take the title, Liverpool don’t have their destiny in their own hands, but they are playing well enough to keep dreaming.

Winning a quadruple would establish them as the greatest of all Liverpool’s golden generations, better even than the 1988 vintage of John Barnes and Peter Beardsley and the late 1970s and early ‘80s crop of Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness.

Klopp, though, isn’t looking that far enough and warned his players that they must remain “on alert”.

“It is 2-0 at half-time,” said Klopp. “You have to be completely on alert, 100 percent in the right moment and play the second half like we played the first. We know it will be a tricky atmosphere for us.”

For Villarreal, the defeat at Anfield exposed their limitations and limited options when faced with key injuries.

Spanish coach Unai Emery has won plaudits for the way he has turned a collection of relatively modest and low-cost players into a last-four team in Europe’s top club competition, showing that his side’s smart defending and effective counter-attacking could cause problems for clubs with far more illustrious histories.

For the opening 45 minutes at Anfield, there were indications that the approach might work but what was missing was the counter-attacking threat that is such a vital part of the gameplan.

Without key striker Gerard Moreno to partner him, Dutch forward Arnaut Danjuma was less of a danger than he has shown with his six goals in the competition this season.

Another key injury absence was winger Yeremi Pino, the pacey 19-year-old, who has been so impressive this season.

Samuel Chukwueze was moved into a more central role than he is accustomed to and never quite clicked with Danjuma against a rock-solid Liverpool defensive pairing of Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate.

Effective counter-attacks might have caused Liverpool to think twice about pushing their full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold so far forward but there was no sign of caution or fear from the pair.

After the break, Liverpool clearly upped the tempo, their midfield pushing higher and the Spanish resistance finally, with some inevitability, crumbled.

“We wanted to use direct, vertical football to relieve the pressure on us that was our plan,” said defender Pau Torres. “But we failed to connect with our front players. We were up against a very good, very strong opponent.”

Torres suggested that it will be a very different game in Spain next Tuesday and promised that the team will rediscover the resourceful and clever approaches that took them past Juve and Bayern.

But the problem for Emery is that Liverpool play the same way away from the noise and colour of Anfield and will seek to swarm the Villarreal defence, pressing and counter-pressing and generally suffocating their opponents.

Villarreal must hope that Moreno and Pino can recover in time for the return. Unlike Liverpool, they don’t have a bench full of internationals — another limitation at this level.

Moreno in particular is the heart and soul of the Villarreal team and his presence would give Emery different options.

“The match next week will be very different than tonight,” promised the coach. “It is very important in our home to change something, maybe tactically. They are going to suffer more than tonight.”

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2022

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