Best odds: 16/5
The first finalist of the 2021-22 Champions League will be known on Tuesday evening, after Villarreal battle it out against Liverpool in the second leg of their semifinal clash at the Estadio de la Ceramica. The Merseysiders travel to Spain in good spirits, carrying a two-goal lead with an own-goal from Pervis Estupinan and a calm finish from Sadio Mane the difference last week at Anfield.
The first thing that should be said (again) is that Villarreal are here, at this stage of UEFA’s elite club competition, against all odds. They were huge underdogs in the round of 16 but they got the better of Juventus, and repeated the feat against Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals.
Capable of playing different styles of football, the Yellow Submarine relied on a heavily defensive approach to achieve this success and they took it up again at Anfield. However, Liverpool proved too strong in the end and now, they’ll obviously need to play a lot more offensively to stand a chance of going through.
Back on the domestic scene, Unai Emery’s team haven’t been nearly as successful as in Europe, and winning the Champions League (as unrealistic as it sounds at this point) is now the only way for them to appear in the competition again next season. A place in the Europa League or the Conference League is a much more reasonable goal.
Villarreal are seventh in the La Liga table with 52 points from 34 matches, nine less than Atletico Madrid in fourth, five less than Real Betis in fifth, and four less than Real Sociedad in sixth. Looking over their shoulders, Athletic Bilbao are directly behind with 51.
Speaking of Bilbao, Villarreal’s last-six run begins with a 1-1 draw at home against them. Then they drew 1-1 in the second leg against Bayern in Munich, beat Getafe away by 1-2 and Valencia at home by 2-0, lost 2-0 away to Liverpool, as well as 2-1 away to Alaves.
Emery has a number of issues to work around. His attacking section is hit hard enough with the hamstring problem of Gerard Moreno, but now Arnaut Danjuma is a doubt as well, having picked up an injury just ahead of the Alaves clash. Both are in considerable doubt to feature, but haven’t been ruled out completely yet.
Former Liverpool left-back Alberto Moreno is still out with a knee injury, as is winger Yeremy Pino.
Midfielder Francis Coquelin and defender Raul Albiol have had some problems, but both should be fine to face Liverpool. The same goes for Pau Torres and Dani Parejo, who were replaced as a precaution against Alaves.
As has been said, Liverpool go to Spain with a very good result from the first leg, but their good spirits aren’t just down to that. They’re mostly due to the fact that Jurgen Klopp’s men are still on a quest for the ‘quadruple’, never before won by any English club, and it’s looking more doable with each game.
Liverpool have already placed the Carabao Cup on a shelf in their loaded trophy cabinet, they’ll face Chelsea in the FA Cup final at the end of next week, and they’re currently in second place in the Premier League table, just one point off defending champions Manchester City. The race is growing hot right now, with neither side showing any signs of slowing down. And apart from all that, they’ve obviously got a pretty good shot at the Champions League as well.
Strangely enough, few among the media, especially in England, saw Liverpool as genuine candidates for either the Premier League or the Champions League at the start of the season. That gradually changed throughout the campaign, and now nobody is prepared to rule them out from anything.
Liverpool are obviously on very good form, or we wouldn’t be talking about them in this manner. Their last six matches in all competitions include a 3-3 draw at home against Benfica in the second leg of the quarterfinals (they’d won the first in Lisbon by 1-3), a 3-2 win over Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals at Wembley, a 4-0 home win over arch-rivals Manchester United, a 2-0 win at home over city rivals Everton, the 2-0 triumph over Villarreal in the first leg, and a 0-1 win away to Newcastle United on Saturday.
Forward Roberto Firmino, who’s missed the last couple of games with a foot injury, is still not ready to return to action, though his comeback is now close. He has traveled with the squad but merely as moral support.
There are no fresh selection problems for Klopp. Ibrahima Konate, Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Fabinho are set to return to the starting XI having been rested against Newcastle. Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and James Milner will be making way, along with either Sadio Mane, Luis Diaz or Diogo Jota.
Liverpool shouldn’t have too many worries in this clash. They’re likely to establish control of the game at some point within the opening 15 minutes and they won’t let it go. Villarreal will obviously need to push forward as hard as they can, but Liverpool will be able to absorb their attack and make sure they go through.
But with no real need to attack and important matches to come, the visitors will be content with slowing the fluidity of the game down and a draw feels like a likely outcome.
Best odds: 16/5
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