THIS was a strange one to ‘scout’ as it was hard to decide which game to watch. The easiest of the Spanish side’s recent fixtures to find a full 90 minutes of was the 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid last Wednesday. However, although I watched it, it was hard to learn too much from a backs-to-the-wall performance at the Bernabeu. Despite Liverpool’s recent performance, we are not quite Real Madrid. And it is fair to say Villarreal will approach the game at Estadio El Madrigal much differently.
However, Sunday’s home game against Real Sociedad turned into a bit of a damp squib. Possibly conscious of a Europa League semi-final ahead, possibly confident of securing fourth place in La Liga (Villarreal now sit four points ahead of fifth-placed Celta Vigo with a much superior goal difference), it felt like the team had more to give.
That said, Villarreal’s league form since progressing to the last four in Europe has generally been poor. As well as the home draw to Real Sociedad and the away defeat to Real Madrid, ‘The Yellow Submarine’ lost away at 16th-placed Real Vallecano in a game in which they managed just two shots on target and had 37 per cent of possession.
How far should you go back to look for clues to what Liverpool may be up against? I didn’t wish to disparage a team based on a Europa League hangover, a defeat to a great side and whatever the opposite of a hangover is against Sociedad. So maybe their last European performance away at Sparta Prague is a better indication of what we might expect.
They played very well in Prague. They won 4-2, but led 4-0, pulling Sparta apart with crisp passing and incisive finishing. Yet Prague looked a bit rubbish. They actually got beat 3-0 at home by Viktoria Plzen at the weekend (Who are they? Exactly). They got to a European quarter-final on merit but it is hard to imagine this Liverpool team giving Villarreal as much time on the ball to pick their passes.
So what can I tell you about Marcelino’s side?
As mentioned above, they are fourth and they seem to have got there by doing a passible impression of another third/fourth-placed side — Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool.
Villarreal play with two banks of four, with wide midfielders rather than wingers, and make it difficult for the opposition to break them down.
They have conceded the third least number of goals in La Liga this season, just two more than Barcelona, which is a good job as they have scored just 42 in 35 games.
They are unbeaten in 11 Europa League fixtures (W8 D3), and have won all six of their home games in this season’s competition, conceding only once in the process.
The man who mainly gets the goals for them is Cedric Bakambu. He’s been a revelation in his first season at the club, with nine goals in the Europa League alone.
With quick feet and powerful boots he can score most kind of goals and will be a threat to Liverpool both running with the ball and in behind the defence. He will be partnered by Roberto Soldado, who people will remember from his days at Spurs. He struggled there, but is much happier back in Spain. His goal return isn’t remarkable, but that is as much to do with Villarreal’s style of play. If anything, it just makes Bakambu’s return more impressive.
Behind the strikeforce, the midfield has been rotated in recent weeks but is most likely to be the same one that played in Prague, with a four of Denis Suarez, Manu Trigueros, the captain Bruno and Samu Castillejo.
Suarez, who spent two years at Manchester City as a teenager without playing for the first team, is the most eye catching, popping up between the lines and always looking to feed his strikers. Bruno is a fun player, too, the type a supporter loves. He’s spent his whole career at The Yellow Submarine, and even turned down a move to local rivals Valencia when Villarreal spent a year in the second tier.
The back four will be Mario, Eric Bailly, Victor Ruiz and Antonio Rukavina. Eric Bailly has been getting most of the headlines this year, with the 22 year old linked with a move to Manchester City and Barcelona in the summer. You can see why Pep Guardiola in particular is thought to fancy him — his pace and power making him ideally suited to the Premier League. He was actually subbed on 65 minutes in their last league game, but is not thought to be a doubt.
— Villarreal CF (@VillarrealCF) April 27, 2016
Whilst the back four picks itself, behind them in goal it isn’t cut and dried. Sergio Asenjo is the traditional number one, but has missed most of the last year injured. Villarreal seem to have tried to use the three league games since the Sparta Prague game to play him into fitness and form, but he was shaky as anything in the first two defeats.
A solid performance against Sociedad last time out will probably mean he gets the nod, but it will be harsh on Alphonse Areola who has been more or less an ever present this season and a key part in Villarreal’s defensive strength.
So how should Liverpool approach the game? Well I think it is fair to say the tie will be very different to two legs versus Borussia Dortmund. Expect a slower pace and more of a European feel. Liverpool can try and press, but they might find themselves with a similar problem to the one they often face in the Premier League. Namely, how do you press a team who aren’t that concerned with possession? Villarreal only had 40 per cent of the ball in their last home game against Sociedad and across all their Europa League games this season they have averaged 48 per cent.
Patience will be needed home and away and mistakes need to be kept to a minimum. However, unlike the last round, the superior quality will be in red and it’s tough to imagine a score in Spain that Liverpool can’t overturn at Anfield. If we can manage to go toe to toe with their central midfield then the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Sturridge should have too much.
Up the tactical Reds.