3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Newcastle (h); 4-0 Everton (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (a)
Villarreal: 0-0 Real Sociedad (h); 0-3 Real Madrid (a); 1-2 Rayo Vallecano (a)
Previous EL rounds:
Liverpool: 4-3 Dortmund (h), 1-1 Dortmund (a); 1-1 United (a), 2-0 United (h); 1-0 Augsburg (h), 0-0 Augsburg (a); 0-0 Sion (a); 2-1 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Kazan (a); 1-1 Kazan (h); 1-1 Sion (h); 1-1 Bordeaux (a)
Villarreal: 4-2 Sparta Prague (a), 2-1 Sparta Prague (h); 0-0 Leverkusen (a), 2-0 Leverkusen (h); 1-1 Napoli (a), 1-0 Napoli (h); 3-3 Plzen (a); 1-0 Rapid Wien (h); 2-1 Dinamo Minsk (a); 4-0 Dinamo Minsk (h); 1-0 Plzen (h); 1-2 Rapid Wien (a)
Liverpool: Coutinho, Lallana, Milner, Origi 2; Benteke, Can, Firmino, Ibe, Lovren, Sakho, Sturridge 1
Villarreal: Bakambu 9; Bruno, Leo Baptistao, Soldado 2; Bailly, Castillejo, dos Santos, Pina, Suarez 1
Referee: Damir Skomina (SLO)
Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Toure Moreno
Lallana Milner Allen Coutinho
How's your week been?
Not great, Bob.
Henderson, Can, and Origi remain out through injury, Sakho's not contesting his failed drug test – which means at least a six-month ban, and more likely two years – and Liverpool are coming off a humiliating draw against probably-will-still-be-relegated Newcastle.
So it's a smashing time to play a Europa League semifinal against a team that hasn't lost in this competition since September.
Cleverer people than I – Sky Sports' Rob Palmer in the Echo and Anfield Index – have noted that Villarreal look an awful lot like Leicester if you squint hard enough. While they've not succeeded in the league to such a degree, they've been a surprisingly good side considering their underlying statistics: good in defense, not good up front, massively over-performing Expected Goals. But they've been comprehensively excellent in the Europa League.
In this analogy, Bakambu is Vardy, Soldado is Okazaki, Denis Suarez is Mahrez, Bruno Soriano is Kante, Rukavina and Mario Gaspar are both competent fullbacks who can get forward but are better in defense. But it's the playing style that's most similar: an orthodox, compact, deep 4-4-2; a reliance on quick transitions through interplay and fast passing rather than long ball; pressing from the front before settling into defensive positions; and one key player who scores the majority of their goals.
So what did Liverpool do against Leicester? And what could and should have Liverpool done better? In both matches against Leicester this season – 1-0 at home, 0-2 away – Liverpool matched Leicester's formation, basically a 4-4-1-1 in both meetings. Firmino playing off Origi then Benteke at home, with Lallana, Coutinho, Henderson, and Can in midfield; Liverpool were wasteful in attack (surprise!) but completely shut down Leicester and eventually got its goal through Firmino crossing to Benteke. Away from home, Liverpool's options were more limited, with Lallana playing off Firmino, Henderson and Milner "on the flanks," and Can and Lucas in central midfield. Liverpool were wasteful in attack (surprise!) but also didn't create enough, before falling behind to a wonder goal on the counter from Vardy – the defensive line too high and broken too easily – then quickly and somewhat unluckily conceding a second.
Which leads me to think that Liverpool will match Villarreal's formation, especially considering the dearth of available central midfielders; not only are Henderson and Can out, but Stewart's not in the Europa League squad. However, Liverpool may want to play more cautiously away from home in the first leg, more of a 4-3-3 with Allen, Lucas, and Milner behind Lallana, Coutinho, and either Firmino or Sturridge. Villarreal are dangerous in transition and dangerous through the middle, with Soldado dropping deep to create space and create chances for Bakumbu. Lucas can stay deep and drop into the defense when needed, while Allen and Milner get forward (and wide) to supplement the attacking line of three. But Lucas may also be preferred as Sakho's replacement, and I'm also not convinced that 4-3-3 attack will do enough to unsettle Villarreal. Away from home, in the first of two legs, Liverpool have to find a balance, and finding that balance isn't easy, especially considering the absences.
Regardless of personnel or formation, Liverpool must also take advantage of the flanks, not only through quick transitions of their own, but also as Villarreal often attempt to funnel the opposition's attacking play out wide. Moreno and Clyne will be crucial, especially the former, Liverpool's best crosser of the ball along with Milner. It might actually be helpful that Benteke's back, potentially able to come off the bench in the target-man role that Liverpool so infrequently use.
Meanwhile, Valencia's XI is likely to be Areola; Mario, Bailly, Ruiz, Rukavina; D Suarez, Trigueros, Bruno, Castillejo; Soldado, Bakambu. Both Sergio Asenjo and Mariano Barbosa have started in goal in this competition as well, but Areola's played the majority of matches lately. Jonathan dos Santos could be an option anywhere in midfield, starting matches on the flanks and in the middle lately. Center-back in Villarreal's only slightly concerning position, with both Musacchio and Jaume Costa out injured. Which is another reason I'd like to see Liverpool play with two up front, even if it makes the side slightly more vulnerable at the other end.
Villarreal haven't been in great form lately, winless in their last three games, scoring just once in their last three games. Rayo, despite for points to avoid relegation, out-battled Villarreal, the first goal through a rebound, conceding a quick equalizer, then getting a late winner from a cross and header in a cagey second half. Real Madrid out-possessed and outgunned Villarreal, dominating possession, not allowing Villarreal any counter-attack opportunities, and finished their own chances. And last weekend, Villarreal and Real Sociedad played out a fairly dire 0-0.
But some end-of-season malaise isn't unexpected. Villarreal are fourth – not solidly fourth, but four points and +17 goal difference clear of Celta Vigo. A drop in league form with eyes on a Europa League semifinal? That sounds vaguely familiar. Eking by Napoli, who were joint-favorites along with Dortmund at that point, was impressive, as was their dismissal of Bayer Leverkusen in the next round, before easily stomping Sparta Prague in the quarterfinals.
Cedric Bakumbu's an excellent example of Villarreal's league v European form. Their top scorer with 12 goals, he's averaging 0.59 goals per 90 in La Liga. Quite good, but not "good lord" good; Sturridge is averaging 0.90, Origi's averaging 0.68 with a lot fewer minutes, Benteke's averaging 0.49, Firmino's averaging 0.43. But Bakumbu's averaging 1.06 goals per 90 in the Europa League; with nine goals, he's got as many as Liverpool's entire likely XI tomorrow. That's "good lord" good.
For the questions about Villarreal's league position, they've definitely earned their continued participation in this competition.
But so have Liverpool, mediocre but unbeaten through the group stage and first knock-out round, then thwacking Manchester United before that comeback against the competition's then-clear favorites Dortmund. It's a surprise that both sides are here, but both sides definitely deserve to be here.
One side knows what it does, and does it well; settled, mainly injury-free, and consistent. The other is more versatile, able to change formation and style to suit both personnel available and opposition, but also more inconsistent, due to scattered injuries throughout the season and a continuing change in playing style after the midseason managerial change. When they're good, they're better than most. When they're bad, they concede two in the second half at home against Newcastle.
It's much, much easier said than done, but be good tomorrow, Liverpool. Despite the players absent, be what you've been so far in this competition.