n his press conference yesterday, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp joked that a younger version of himself would have been furious just to be asked whether this semi-final tie is already over.
He has seen too much, both he and Liverpool involved in too many comebacks – usually as perpetrator – from more perilous positions than the one Villarreal find themselves in, to entertain that kind of talk.
Still, Klopp’s team selection for Saturday’s trip to Newcastle suggested that beneath the obligatory lip service, cliched chatter of it being “only half-time”, he genuinely feels the job is not done, with Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara all rotated for what was a must-win game.
It feels like an age since the quadruple-pursuers last played a match that wasn’t one of those, and while a draw or a one-goal defeat would of course be enough to reach a third Champions League final in five seasons, there is little danger of Klopp’s side hunkering down and looking to ride out a yellow storm at El Madrigal tonight.
“We have to be ready to suffer and sit back in moments, but not as a general approach,” the 54-year-old said, highlighting the aggression that has seen them win five out of five away from home in the competition this season, racking up 15 goals across trips to Benfica, Porto, Atletico Madrid and both Milan giants.
“We didn’t win the games by sitting deep and counter-attacking,” he added. “We tried to play as ourselves and we have to do that again.”
Alexander-Arnold, too, warned against the old demon that is complacency but neither Klopp nor circumstances have allowed it to fester in this group. The German’s intensity does not permit half-heartedness even if his team now play with more control than in the thunderous early years of his reign, while the Reds’ new-found depth and blessed fortune with injuries mean individual shirts are on the line every week.
One early goal could, of course, swing the tie, but the trouble for Unai Emery and Villarreal is that should Liverpool score it, even without the away goals rule, it would surely signal game over.
The Spaniards must be foot-perfect, riding their luck as they did at times in the second leg of their quarter-final against Bayern Munich, staying in the game and showing the ruthless streak that saw off Juventus in a late flurry in the round before that.
“We will try to find some weak spots,” Emery said yesterday, before acknowledging that is “something that no one has done this season.”
If there is hope for Villarreal, it may lie in the second-leg sloppiness that has left the aggregate scoreline shy of reflecting Liverpool’s dominance of each of their knockout ties to date, though in neither the 6-4 against Benfica nor 2-1 against Inter did the Reds ever look in real danger of an exit.
Emery will be boosted by the return of Spain striker Gerard Moreno, but it may be a case of one-in, one-out, with concern over the fitness of top scorer Arnaut Danjuma after the former Bournemouth man missed training yesterday. Liverpool will still be without Roberto Firmino, though the Brazilian has travelled with the squad to Spain.