Liverpool were rewarded for last Thursday’s dramatic last-gasp win against Borussia Dortmund with a tie against a difficult Villarreal side. The Spanish side lie in fourth in La Liga, behind only the big three of Barcelona, Atlético and Real Madrid. Despite a 3-0 defeat at the Bernabéu on Wednesday, the ‘Yellow Submarine’ look almost certain for a return to Europe’s premier competition.
The club reached their fourth European semi-final with a 6-3 aggregate win over Sparta Prague. They now look to win their first major European trophy in the club’s history. Key players include former Manchester City man, Denis Suárez, as well the highly-rated Cédric Bakambu and the ex-Spurs flop, Roberto Soldado; all three have gained many plaudits this season.
Three teams that could stand in the way of Liverpool’s Europa League glory…
Villarreal have proved this season that they are certainly no pushovers, especially at home, beating both Madrid clubs and gaining a draw against Barcelona. This no-fear attitude has featured in their European campaign as well; they have seen off Bayer Leverkusen and one of the favourites for the tournament, Napoli, on their way to the semi-finals.
Manager, Marcelino, has done a great job for the club. Key players include former Manchester city reject, Denis Suárez, who has rekindled his career in Spain and has been vital to the club’s success this season. The Spaniard’s accomplishments are also down to the team’s interesting attack, and they have scored the most in Europe this season.
Late bloomer, Cédric Bakambu, has netted 23 times for Villarreal this season, including nine in the Europa League, and he has really benefited from former Tottenham Hotspur striker, Roberto Soldado, who was much maligned in his time in England. However, the 30-year-old has played a much deeper role of late and, therefore, been able to create opportunities for the dangerous Bakambu, as well as adding a credible eight goals.
As is the case for many of Spain’s top teams, Villarreal’s defence is a real strong point. Marcelino’s side have conceded just 31 goals in 34 games this season in the league, and former Spurs target, Mateo Musacchio, has been an integral part of this solidity. The 25-year-old Argentine international is another vital player for the Yellow Submarine.
Villarreal’s history is not illustrious but very interesting; despite a short history in Spain’s top flight, the club have an impressive European record, reaching the semi-finals of the Europa League (UEFA Cup) three times. They, perhaps most famously, crashed out of the Champions League in the 2005/06 semi-final due to a rare Kolo Touré goal. These four semi-finals are an impressive feat considering they only entered Spain’s upper echelon in 1989 and, despite a blip in 2012 when the club were relegated, it has mainly been a positive time in La Liga. Their best moment was undoubtedly when Villarreal came second in La Liga in 2008. The club has also won back-to-back Intertoto Cups in 2003 and 2004.
Sevilla and Shakhtar Donetsk
Even if Liverpool get past this difficult Villarreal test, they will face either the equally strong Sevilla or Shakhtar Donetsk in the final in Basel. Many Reds fans were happy to miss the current Europa League holders who are searching for their third success in the tournament, as they saw them as the strongest.
Despite picking up 11 points fewer than Villarreal in La Liga, following a disappointing season, it is fair to say that Sevilla have a stronger squad with the likes of long-term Liverpool target, Yehven Konoplyanka, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Ciro Immobile and veteran, Fernando Llorente.
Unai Emery’s side have beaten Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, but their league form has taken a serious dip recently. After a 4-0 defeat at the Bernabéu, they have picked up one point from their last five games. However, despite this dip, Sevilla reached the Copa Del Rey final and will play Barcelona three days after the Europa League final – should they get there.
Their Europa League journey started after they were knocked out of the Champions League, finishing third in a very tough group with Manchester City, Juventus and Borussia Mönchengladbach. Their run in the Europa League has seen three very different ties. The Spanish side cruised past Molde, beating them 3-0 in Sevilla, and then repeated this feat in the next round against Swiss champions, Basel, winning 3-0 at home again. However, their quarter-final was difficult just getting past fellow Spanish club, Athletic Bilbao, on penalties. After an impressive 2-1 win in Bilbao, they threw away their advantage, losing 2-1 at home, but progressed after penalties.
The club have won the Europa League the most times in history, with four titles, and are looking to extend their record. Under the leadership of the impressive and talented manager Unai Emery, they would certainly pose a tough test for the Reds.
Liverpool fans will also have breathed a sigh of relief when the news broke that they had missed a daunting away trip to Lviv. Shakhtar Donetsk, despite losing many of their chief players over the years in Willian, Alex Teixeira, Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the club still emit a serious threat. Under the leadership of long-term manager Mircea Lucescu, the team’s top players include ‘keeper, Andriy Pyatov, and defensive stalwart, Darijo Srna, as well as Brazilians, Fred, Wellington Nem and Bernard.
Shakhtar currently sit second, just past the mid-way stage in the Ukrainian Premier League, five points off Dynamo Kyiv. Shakhtar entered the Europa League in the same way that Sevilla did by finishing third in a very difficult Champions League group that featured Real Madrid, PSG and Malmo. However, just one win in six games and heavy defeats to PSG and Real Madrid, plus a defeat in Sweden, made it a campaign to forget. In the Europa League, Shakhtar have impressed with sensational wins over Schalke and Braga – winning 3-0 and 4-0, respectively. However, the Ukrainian club have lost their main goal threat, as Alex Teixeira left to join Jiangsu Suning after netting 26 in as many games earlier this season.
However, one big problem for the Ukrainian club is that, due to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the side has be relocated to Lviv over 100km away from Donetsk, after the Donbass Arena was damaged in the conflict. However, the club’s yet to lose at home in the Europa League.