WHEN Liverpool are through to the next round in European competition all we want to know is who are we going to get? Where next? Who next? And are they any good?
Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund have been seen off. They were really tough ties but were ultimately contests against known quantities. As often as not, we get drawn against a new face, or at least one we can’t quite place.
Villarreal are the dangerous stranger. We know they’re fourth in the Spanish league. That’s about it. It tells us everything and nothing. Leicester are top of our league. The likes of Stoke and Southampton have been ahead of us most of this season. And these teams are all shit.
Yes, even you, Leicester. You’re still shit, and no winning of the actual Premier League is going to alter that.
Villarreal are fourth in Spain. Quite a number of sage Reds have been tapping noses at people pointing out that fact in the past week. The record shows only such luminaries as Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid are better than them. And these teams are definitively not shit.
Yet. Yet, there is a 20-point chasm between Real Madrid in third and Villarreal in fourth. It transpires they can’t have actually been playing in the same league. Without checking, I know this 20-point gap is the largest gap of its kind to be found in any serious European league. Probably in history. Ever.
So just who are you, Villarreal? You’re ahead of Sevilla by three or four places. They clearly aren’t shit, as they are in this year’s UEFA Europa cup semis, and have won the competition for the past two seasons. The very competition we are so aching to win this year.
Villarreal are ahead of Atletico Bilbao. I’ve heard of them, they can’t be shit either. Villarreal have also knocked out Napoli, who were for a good while considering deposing Juventus at the top in Italy.
There is therefore clear evidence of a general lack of shitness around Villarreal Football Club.
Yet. Yet, the bookies make them outsiders. Not in a muddy way, but in a clear-cut, these are definitely, indisputably underdogs kind of way. Why? WHY?!
Take a look at Villarreal’s squad list. Who the fuck are these lads? The only one I’ve heard of is Soldado, and he was tried and convicted as shit when he played over here for Spurs.
I now know another name — Cédric Bakambu. If things are to unravel for Liverpool over the course of this tie, it is likely that we’ll be getting to hear the name Bakambu plenty during the process. The lighting lummox has nine goals in 11 Europa games this season. He is no slouch.
Villarreal, then, the embodiment of the ‘surprise package’. What will we discover when we open the box labelled Villarreal at 8.05pm? A hissing viper that will bite our faces off and send us crashing back to Euro oblivion, or a cuddly hamster that we gently lift from its enclosure before hurling it to the floor and stamping on it?
Until all is revealed, I will be a bag of nerves. Why can’t these European teams be more pin downable, like our good old Premier League foes? You know what you’re getting with a Newcastle, or a Stoke, or a West Ham. Yes, they have good days and if matched against our bad days, disappointment can result. The parameters though are always known. We very much understand and can visualise the level of these teams.
In mulling all this over, I’m minded of the nascent European monetary system that succeeded the ill-fated Bretton Woods exchange rate treaty in the early 1970s. This set-up, a precursor to the Euro, attempted to create favourable trading conditions and a commercial stable environment for Western European allies by pegging a basket of currencies to each within a fixed range. The arrangement was known as ‘the snake in the tunnel’. It ensured — in theory — that exchange rates could fluctuate, but only within prescribed confines. It didn’t work very well, but that isn’t the point I’m making.
The Prem sides we routinely encounter are snakes in that tunnel. A tube maybe have been a better metaphor, because tunnels seem inherently too big. Stupid economists.
The oscillations in standard of outfit in our league are almost entirely predictable. At least until Leicester shattered the paradigm. Maybe Leicester represent stagflation. I’ll give this more thought.
I can only conclude that I can conclude nothing where Villarreal are concerned. They must remain enigmatic for a while longer. I wonder if Jürgen Klopp and his Liverpool team are anywhere near as baffled as I am? Sure, they’ve all watched loads of videos of them, and will have been walked through profiles of their team, and analysed individual strengths and weaknesses, but can any of it entirely prepare them for the mystery that awaits?
I’m not entirely sure anything can.
Klopp may deem the only way to resolve this riddle is for his Liverpool team to decide which team they themselves want to be.
If they wish to again be the European giants of 70 per cent of the two legs against Dortmund, and 90 per cent of the two legs against Manchester United, then the mystery men of Villarreal will be put in their place and defined by what we do to them.
Does this sound a bit like ‘it doesn’t matter what they do, it’s what we do that matters’? Well, we are favourites to make it to the final, so maybe this simplification does actually apply.
Will the bookies’ mantel embolden Klopp? Given Villarreal are renowned as low-blocking 4-4-2 counter attack merchants, it’s reasonable to guess they might cede the midfield, even at home.
To that end, playing a variation on a 4-5-1 (a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1) will only play into their hands. They’ll want all the middle third of the park congestion this set up will bring.
In an ideal world, Divock Origi is still fit and he and Danny Sturridge are given license to tear it up by the seaside in Spain. With no natural fit partner to Sturridge, there is a concern that no-one will get near enough to him to render the support he will need to find premium-priced space in the penalty area.
We’d all guess that two of Lucas Leiva, Joe Allen and James Milner will anchor the midfield. We’d pitch, too, that Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana and maybe Roberto Firmino will look to service Sturridge. Which, though, can be trusted to break the lines with the frequency that will be required to breach Villarreal?
Word has it that the defence is the rock upon which these Spaniards have built their temple. Think Atletico Madrid-lite.
I’ll stop spinning plates and theories. I’ll set aside talk of serpents and shite. We are in a European semi-final, people. That’s all that matters now. May justice be done though the heavens fall.
The slippery Reds to take on the mystery men, then: Mignolet; Clyne, Lucas, Lovren, Moreno; Allen, Milner; Coutinho, Lallana; Firmino, Sturridge.