Liverpool fans were rightly ebullient as their side knocked out tournament favourites Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League quarter finals, but they’d be wise not to get ahead of themselves and think they have a hand on the cup.
The semi final draw has pitted them against an intelligent and effective Villarreal side that should not be underestimated.
The Yellow Submarine have been having a fine season under manager Marcelino and are more than capable of torpedoing Klopp’s European dream.
Liverpool fans should beware of a club that has sat in the La Liga top four all season, and is favoured to secure that coveted last Champions League slot.
Doing so would represent a major reward for the little Castellon club, which has been making impressive strides under Marcelino’s guidance since he took over in January 2013.
In two and a half years, the 50-year-old has steered the club back into the topflight and to two successive sixth place finishes – and now Champions League qualification beckons.
In any season, Villarreal finishing fourth would be considered a major achievement. But doing so this time round would be truly exceptional given the serious turnover of the club’s squad last summer and the arduous Europa League campaign they have endured as they have fought to hold their league position.
Buying young, little known players for small fees and selling them on as stars has long been Villarreal’s stock in trade and has helped them punch above their weight.
Marcelino is well aware of the strategy, but still, how he must grimaced when he saw his entire frontline (Luciano Vietto, Giovani Dos Santos, Ikechukwu Uche, Gerard Moreno and loanee Joel Campbell) leave the club last summer.
But the manager has made light of such an exodus and deserves great praise for making his side so competitive on domestic and European fronts.
The key of course for a club like Villarreal is in recruitment. And yet again, the El Madrigal staff appear to have picked up another couple of gems in Eric Bailly and Cedric Bakambu.
Centre half Bailly was picked up for €5.7 million from Espanyol ostensibly as a replacement for the Arsenal-bound Gabriel Paulista.
After a difficult start, the Ivorian established himself as first choice and is reportedly on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City shopping list.
Striker Bakambu, however, has been gaining most of the attention. The Congo striker was signed from Bursapor for €7 million after scoring an impressive 21 goals in 39 league and cup games last season.
Bakambu has brought his scoring boots to Spain, and his 12 La Liga and 9 Europa League strikes have gone a long way to filling the gap left by the likes of Vietto. The big striker is in many ways similar to Liverpool’s Divock Origi.
Both are big, physical and quick – and while a little raw, clearly have a developing eye for goal.
But while the 25-year-old offers a threat, Villarreal’s real strength lies in defence. Marcelino’s men have had 15 clean sheets and conceded only 31 goals in their 35 La Liga fixtures this season.
The fact that they’ve only scored 42 times shows just how important the Yellow Submarine’s watertight defence has been in seeing them reach such lofty heights, and suggests that Marcelino’s men won’t go looking for Liverpool when they meet on Thursday night.
They’ll be patient, compact and look to hit the Reds on the break or capitalise on any errors.
If Liverpool can get ahead, you’d have to fancy them to progress. But should they fall behind, they’ll find the Spanish side very difficult to break down.
That said, after a long season in which Villarreal have played over 50 games, recent defeats and performances at Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid suggest they might be getting a little leggy.
Winning only three of their last 11 league game might suggest likewise.
However, over that period they have also had impressive draws with Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, hinting at their pedigree.
And their ousting of fancied Napoli from the Europa League in the last 16 also suggests that the Spanish side won’t fear their semi final clash with Liverpool.