Villarreal lead 1-0 on aggregate
3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Swansea (a); 0-1 Villarreal (a); 2-2 Newcastle (h)
Villarreal: 2-0 Valencia (a); 1-0 Liverpool (h); 0-0 Real Sociedad (h)
Previous EL rounds:
Liverpool: 0-1 Villarreal (a); 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: 1-0 Villarreal (a); 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; Adrian, Bailly, Castillejo, dos Santos, Pina, Suarez 1
Referee: Viktor Kassai (HUN)
Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Toure Moreno
Lallana Firmino Coutinho
A European semi-final. Liverpool are behind, narrowly, on aggregate, but will be in front of a roaring Anfield. They have 90 minutes to make up the deficit, ideally scoring at least once, but preferably twice, without conceding against an incredibly-dangerous-on-the-counter Villarreal.
So, how do you want to play this?
Seems to me there are just two choices. Either try to do what you did in Villarreal – patient, controlled, primarily focused on stopping Villarreal, knowing you've got 90 minutes to get your goal – but, you know, better than last week, or go for the throat: make the opposition worry about you rather than worrying about them. A more secure 4-3-3 or a more attacking 4-2-3-1/4-4-2.
I can't emphasize how happy I am that Emre Can is back in squad, and I'm very much assuming "back in the squad" means "ready, willing, and able to start, just get out of his way," because Emre Can in the XI means Liverpool will be better in either of the above formations. Emre Can doesn't have the guile that Lucas does in his own half, but he's quicker, stronger, and taller, and he's undeniably more of a threat going forward, as long as going forward doesn't also leave massive gaps at the back. Yes, Emre Can.
But really, the question is "to Sturridge or not to Sturridge."
I am firmly in Camp "To Sturridge." He is Liverpool's best striker, he is Liverpool's best goal-scorer, and he is finally healthy. He can score from range, from inside the box, from headers. He scares defenders with his pace but can also hold play up to involve others. Those qualities, to me, outweigh any loss in Liverpool's pressing that you get when Firmino starts up front. We saw how dire Liverpool were in attack last week: crosses to no one, an inability to hold up play when punting out from the back, etc. Liverpool pressed quite well, which helped keep Villarreal from punishing Liverpool until the very last minute of the match, but Liverpool lost so much more in potential firepower.
If anything, there's a valid argument that Liverpool might need that potential firepower off the bench if the game's still tied – or, heaven forbid, Liverpool's behind – around the hour mark. Do what you did last week and ideally score this time, but if you don't, then Sturridge. Then the go for the throat. But (*gulp, sigh*) bringing on Benteke, giving Sturridge a battering ram strike partner, might well be enough of a positive change if Liverpool find itself in that situation.
If not to Sturridge, it'll be Allen: Can/Lucas behind Milner and Allen, with Coutinho, Lallana, Firmino up front. Liverpool will look to patiently control play, and try to create some chances, and I'm fearful they'll fail because Villarreal are very, very good at making you play wide, and in this formation with these players, Liverpool have no one to play into from wide unless Liverpool somehow create a magical, flowing, one-touch passing move or someone pulls an absolute rabbit from the hat. Which, you know, is possible, but I'd rather not solely rely on that.
Meanwhile, we know exactly what Villarreal will do. Defend, then counter at pace. Two exceptionally well-organized deep banks of four which will look to funnel Liverpool out to the flank and otherwise deny any space in the final third, then a fast break through the front four when Liverpool lose possession: the pace of Denis Suarez, dos Santos, and Bakumbu; the hold-up play and creativity of Soldado. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And I'll be surprised if Villarreal are much different from last week's side. Bailly picked up a groin injury in that match, and is doubtful, but that just means that the returning Musacchio (who came on as a substitute on Thursday and also started over the weekend) will keep his place. Otherwise, the same line-up in the same 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation. Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Ruiz, Costa; dos Santos, Pina, Bruno, Suarez; Soldado, Bakumbu.
Like Liverpool, Villarreal also made multiple changes for their weekend match, with Bakumbu, dos Santos, Bruno, Pina, Suarez, Costa, Mario, and Asenjo rested. But Villarreal, away from home against a decent eighth-place Valencia, still comfortably won 2-0 through goals from Samu and Adrian, sealing a place in next season's Champions League. I really hope the stats nerds are wrong and momentum's not really a thing. Because Villarreal, unbeaten in three, have a lot more momentum than winless-in-three Liverpool.
This is it. This is for a place in a European final, which would be Liverpool's first since 2007. This is why Liverpool have rested players for multiple league matches over the last month. This is for the season.
If Liverpool win, the frustration and failings have been worth it. If Liverpool lose, it's much more of a lost season: a necessary and sometimes-actually-good adaptation to the new manager's tactics and style, but stop-start and without a much-needed short-term reward.
And it's against a side that's more cohesive, coherent, and settled. One which is incredibly tough to beat, which hasn't conceded a single goal in its last three matches. But this is also a European semi-final involving Liverpool at Anfield. We've been here before. And we've every reason to believe anything's possible.