Yellow Brick Road

Liverpool should be wary of Villarreal - who are the best of the rest in Spain

The club have endured a remarkable comeback after relegation to the second division in 2012.

AT FIRST GLANCE, it would be easy to deem it a ‘kind’ draw.

Liverpool don’t have to face the two-time reigning Europa League champions and they don’t have to contend with a potentially slippery trip to Donetsk either.

Still, it’s best to approach with caution. Villarreal are a good side who have experienced a remarkable comeback in an incredibly short period of time.

It’s inevitable that the mind thinks of the glory days of Diego Forlan, Juan Roman Riquelme and Marcos Senna – the team coached by Manuel Pellegrini and who made it to the Champions League semi-finals in 2006.

Spain Soccer Champions League Associated Press Associated Press

Or maybe you remember the side of a few years later when Giuseppe Rossi led the line and was ably supported by Santi Cazorla with Joan Capdevila a rampaging full-back and Diego Godin a young and hungry centre-half? In 2008, they finished as La Liga runners-up and in 2009, they managed to push through to the business end of the Champions League again, where Arsenal knocked them out for the second time in two years.

In 2011, there was a run to the Europa League semi-final where they were single-handedly dismantled by Radamel Falcao and his Porto side over two legs.

Incredibly, by the end of the following season, they were relegated from the Spanish top-flight on a dramatic final day. They had sold and then bought badly. They went through three different coaches in the same campaign and still ended up going down.

Just a matter of weeks later, their newly-appointed boss, Manuel Preciado, was found dead in a hotel after suffering a heart attack.

But from the ashes, the club came back.

Spain Soccer La Liga Alberto Saiz / AP/Press Association Images Alberto Saiz / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

There was an immediate return to the Primera Division and a magnificent sixth-place finish in 2014 as coach Marcelino carved out a reputation as a smart, obsessive coach. His side proved it wasn’t a flickering fluke by repeating the trick the following season.

The approach is quick, swift, ruthless and devastating. Speaking about Villarreal’s style, Marcelino said in early 2015:

If we can finish a move in five successive passes on the ground, we won’t do it in 20″.

There was another sixth-place finish last season but it could’ve been better were it not for their own success. There had been an 18-game unbeaten run between November and February. There was a first ever drive to the Copa del Rey semi-finals where they faced Barcelona and they reached the knockout stages of the Europa League.

There were a lot of games and it hit hard. From their last fourteen, they won just twice.

This term though, they’ve progressed once more and lost just six top-flight games all season.

They’ve beaten Atleti and Real and held Barcelona. They haven’t scored much but haven’t conceded many either – only Diego Simeone’s Champions League semi-finalists have leaked less goals.

They’re eight points clear of 5th-place Celta Vigo and are, officially, the best of the rest.

Following in the tradition of Forlan and Rossi, Villarreal now have Cedric Bakambu leading the line. He’s managed 22 goals this season with nine of them coming in the Europa League.

Czech Republic Soccer Europa League Petr David Josek Petr David Josek

And they’ve been excellent in the tournament so far, particularly in the knockout round.

Napoli had been devastating throughout their group campaign – the top scorers in the competition – and could rely on striker Gonzalo Higuain, who’s been in the form of his life this season.

But, Villarreal had their number, won in Spain and frustrated them in Naples. Then it was onto a clash with Leverkusen where it was a similar story. The Germans were held scoreless at El Madrigal as Bakambu scored twice. The 0-0 draw in the return leg set up a quarter-final assignment against Sparta Prague and Villarreal made little mistake, scoring six times in 180 minutes.

Liverpool face into a difficult assignment, particularly in Spain. Villarreal don’t stumble too often in their own backyard but with the second leg at Anfield, Jurgen Klopp’s side will take inspiration and motivation from their remarkable comeback win last night against Dortmund should the first game prove traumatic.

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