BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Juventus and Bayern Munich have learned the hard way that Villarreal, despite their modest reputation, are no pushovers even in Europe’s elite competition.
Now the club from a small town of 50,000 in eastern Spain must kill one more giant standing in the way of a dream appearance in their first Champions League final.
Liverpool host Villarreal on Wednesday at the always intimidating Anfield. Villarreal will hope to replicate the upsets they pulled off against Juventus in the round of 16 and Bayern in the quarter-finals, or at least avoid a conclusive defeat, before hosting the second leg next week.
“They are the favourites, but we have our strengths that will allow us to compete,” Unai Emery, whose strength as a coach is the strategy for the knockout competition, said Tuesday.
“We are here because we have our credentials having come through the previous rounds against major rivals. The challenge is even greater now after Juventus and Bayern Munich, and we have to work hard to play our best both collectively and individually.”
Relatively unknown among casual football fans outside of Spain, Villarreal have built a reputation over the years as one of the best-run Spanish clubs. Regardless of coach or team members, the team known in the country as “The Yellow Submarine” for its bright banana-colored uniforms continually produces compelling, attack-first teams that like to have the ball.
Owner Fernando Roig, a billionaire businessman who owns a local ceramics company and a part of a highly successful supermarket chain, is credited with building and maintaining a stable club with a keen eye for bringing in talented players without breaking the bank. budget.
Villarreal reached their only other Champions League semi-finals in 2009 and finished the Spanish league in second place in 2008 under Manuel Pellegrini. But it achieved its greatest glory last season when Emery led it to the Europa League title, his first major trophy in the club’s history, after beating Manchester United on penalties in the final.
That was Emery’s fourth Europa League title as manager, after winning Europe’s second division tournament three times with Sevilla. But knocking out Juventus and Bayern back-to-back is arguably his greatest achievement, and it comes as he rebuilds his reputation at Villarreal after a difficult time at Arsenal.
“(Emery) is a detail-obsessed manager,” his Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp said on Tuesday. “Different ways of pressing and reacting to different results. A world-class coach who does an amazing job.”
Villarreal have lost just once in their entire Champions League campaign this season, a 2-0 loss to United in the group stage. Otherwise, it has been exceeded. Their 3-0 win against Juventus last month was one that their fans will enjoy for years to come.
“We expect a game against an opponent in great form,” Villarreal midfielder Dani Parejo said on Tuesday. “We go there with all the confidence in the world, together we are strong. We made history last year by winning the (Europa League) and this year we are also making history, and it is no coincidence. It is having confidence in a project that has been underway for years.”
Villarreal will enter the game after eight days of rest, compared to three for Liverpool. And while Liverpool are also fighting for the Premier League title, Villarreal are focused on their historic opportunity in Europe while sitting seventh in Spain.
“There could have been a small advantage in their last two games, maybe Juve or Bayern underestimated them,” Klopp said of Villarreal. “But that will never happen to us.”
The backbone of Villarreal is made up of Parejo, the Spanish forward Gerard Moreno and the pair of central defenders Raúl Albiol and Pau Torres.
But Villarreal have also given second chances to players who did not make it to England. Midfielders Giovani Lo Celso and Etienne Capoue and right-back Juan Foyth have found a place at Villarreal to finally shine after frustrating seasons at Tottenham.
Emery’s main dilemma before kick-off is Gerard’s preparation. The Spanish striker injured his right leg two weeks ago after scoring and assisting in a 2-1 win over Getafe.
If Gerard is unavailable, the scoring weight will fall to Arnaut Danjuma, who a season after playing in England’s second division with Bournemouth now leads Villarreal with 16 goals in all competitions. Samuel Chukwueze is one of the best dribblers in the league and the winger comes out on top after his late goal in Munich toppled the Bundesliga powerhouse.
Liverpool’s only loss is striker Roberto Firmino, who continues to be hampered by a foot injury.
AP sportswriter Steve Douglas in Manchester, England, contributed to this report.
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