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High-flying Premier League giant Liverpool welcomes giant killer Villarreal for an enticing UEFA Champions League semifinal at Anfield on Wednesday.
Juventus. Bayern Munich. Could Liverpool be next on the list of big-name casualties dumped out of the competition by modest Spanish team Villarreal on its thrilling run in the Champions League knockout stage?
Liverpool will likely be the biggest test so far, with the English club having only lost one game in all competitions since Dec. 28 – that being the second leg of the last 16 against Inter Milan at Anfield, with Jurgen Klopp’s side still in the hunt for a historic quadruple.
However, Villarreal coach Unai Emery is proving to be a brilliant strategist in European competitions. He led Sevilla to three Europa League titles and then Villarreal to the same title last year.
Now Emery has got Villarreal, which is languishing in seventh place in the Spanish league, to the Champions League semifinals for the first time since the 2005-06 season, where it lost to English opposition in Arsenal.
Liverpool has much more pedigree in the competition and is looking to win it for a seventh time, which would match the total of AC Milan. Only Real Madrid has won more European Cups, with 13.
The challenge at Anfield, however, is one of the fiercest in football, something former Watford midfielder Etienne Capoue knows only too well.
He has played four times there, all for Watford, and lost by an aggregate score of 18-1.
“Anfield is hell, you have to say it how it is. It’s hell,” says Capoue.
“It’s the worst stadium I’ve been to in England. Whether it’s the atmosphere, the way they play… For 90 minutes, you live in hell.
“They have this ability to transcend themselves, to cause you nothing but problems, all the time, in any part of the field.
“They never stop, they rush you all the time, they only want to score goals, and even when they score, they carry on. They want to knock you out.
“They don’t care what or who is in front of them. They just want to kill everyone and that’s it.”
Enjoying the underdog tag
Villarreal, however, is enjoying its status as the underdog. The small, sleepy town on Spain’s east coast now has an outside shot at being crowned the king of Europe.
“Winning the Champions League? We never had the audacity to say we could win the Champions League,” Capoue said.
“We’re the smallest club in the semifinals, we were the smallest club in the quarter-finals. We’re just making our merry way. And we have nothing to lose.”
Liverpool will come up against a number of players who failed to make it big in the Premier League but are integral to the Villarreal team, in the likes of Juan Foyth, Etienne Capoue, Giovani Lo Celso and Arnaut Danjuma.
Liverpool’s German manager Klopp said Tuesday that Juventus and Bayern Munich may have underestimated Villarreal but his team will not make the same mistake.
“There might have been a slight advantage (for Villarreal) where Juve or Bayern might have underestimated them but that won’t happen with us. They want to be part of the final but it’s the same importance for us,” Klopp told reporters.
“It’s special. It’s crazy – a massive game. So many coaches, players work their socks off their whole lives and don’t get close to this. We have to cherish it and enjoy it.”
Liverpool last featured in this stage of the competition three years ago, against Barcelona, and Klopp said that home support, which helped them turn around a 3-0 deficit from the first leg in 2019, would be crucial.
“We need a similar atmosphere and a big performance. I need to be on top of my game, so do the boys, that is fine. If a semifinal in this competition would be easy, something would be really wrong. I can’t wait for it, to be honest,” he said.
“There are moments when we will suffer and I know that. We don’t need to get nervous but we can make them suffer too.”