Sounds favorable for Liverpool this week, doesn’t it? Rather than Manchester City or Real Madrid, they play Villarreal, a city whose population would not fill Anfield.
But I’ve watched quite a bit of Villarreal this year and attended Unai Emery’s masterclasses to knock out Bayern Munich and Juventus before them. King KO Emery, a man ridiculed in England.
Owen Hargreaves and I have been studying the stats recently and there is only one person, Zinedine Zidane, who has a better record in European knockout games. Emery is ahead of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
Villarreal beat Juventus and Bayern Munich to advance to the Champions League semi-finals
The Spaniards will then face Liverpool, who will enter the tie as favorites to progress
I realize most of those games were in the Europa League – he won the game four times, most recently beating Manchester United last year – but some managers have a knack for cup football.
Rafa Benitez had that skill, with a UEFA Cup at Valencia, Champions League finals with Liverpool and a Europa League at Chelsea. You always knew that over two rounds he would overtake his opponent, whereas sometimes in the league we were dominated.
I now see similarities with Villarreal, who sit seventh in La Liga and may not even qualify for Europe next season.
There is something about these managers. You either have it or you don’t. Emery has it. To get what he has from this group is just amazing.
But he doesn’t have that level of respect here with the “good ebening” thing. We have to mention it. Emery’s pronunciation of ‘evening’ was a source of great amusement while he was manager of Arsenal.
Unai Emery’s expertise in knockout football could give his team a chance to progress. the boss was ridiculed at Arsenal (right), but proved his class at Villarreal
Here is a man trying hard in a foreign land. He thinks, ‘It will be polite, I will say this’, and ends up being ridiculed. I’m not going to say I wasn’t smiling, but he made a conscious effort to cultivate polite relationships. If I was going to play in Spain and someone told me that saying “buenas noches” at a press conference might be a good idea, I would.
The people who really pointed him probably don’t speak a word of another language and here Emery was dealing with garbage. He worked for the biggest club in France, one of the biggest in England and was hugely successful in Spain – I’m sure he’s doing something right.
Newcastle United wanted him, remember. He refused and you wonder if part of the decision came from bad management memories in England.
He did an amazing job at Sevilla and was strong at Paris Saint-Germain – unfairly sacked in my opinion – before 18 months in London. Arsenal were a disappointment and some of their supporters told me they couldn’t believe what he was achieving and how he was doing it with a solid defensive plan.
It would be silly to write that things were going well at the Emirates or that Arsenal should have given him more time.
They were falling behind and Emery had a major role to play in that as he massively struggled. Now he found himself at Villarreal and those performances against Bayern were just amazing.
Jurgen Klopp will need his side to stay lit, but they should still get the job done
They defended as if their lives depended on it, but this victory was not only the result of action from the back. I saw real full-back stuff, with every man behind the ball, very rarely trying and relying on a free kick.
It’s not Villarreal. They keep an element of danger, breaking with a blistering pace and with goal threats to Gerard Moreno and Arnaut Danjuma. You really need it. There’s no point in sitting around and hanging on more than two legs against teams like Bayern, and now Liverpool, because there’s only one result 99 times out of 100.
They stayed so tight at the Allianz Arena and I’ve never seen Bayern try so many crosses, constantly throwing balls. Villarreal defended brilliantly. Staying close was brave against Robert Lewandowski, who is so good in the air and scores in his sleep. Villarreal trusted each other.
Pau Torres and former Real Madrid player Raul Albiol took care of everything. Torres has been heavily linked with Premier League sides, including Arsenal, and has all the tools to succeed here.
Think for a moment of their team – Etienne Capoue, Francis Coquelin, Serge Aurier and Juan Foyth. These guys aren’t Premier League ‘discards’ because they’ve had good careers, but they aren’t names you’d expect to be in the bottom four of the sport’s biggest competition. .
All played their part. I have real admiration for how they stuck to their game plan and maintained a threat going forward, not just hanging on.
Liverpool will be wary, that’s for sure. Honestly though, and I realize I’ve just spent this column building Villarreal, but I don’t see the Reds slipping up and that has more to do with their own standards than the opposition.
See you for the final in Paris!
SHEARER SMOKE AS KANE CLOSES!
I had about an hour with Alan Shearer in the week for a podcast. We discussed all sorts and in particular the possibility of him getting caught by Harry Kane as the Premier League’s all-time leading goalscorer.
We’ve looked into this and you might be surprised to learn that he’s furious about the prospect! What he made a point of mentioning were his three serious cruciate ligament injuries, which people forget about.
Kane needs 82 goals to catch him. It’s possible.
Alan Shearer is not happy that Harry Kane (right) is on track to break his goalscoring record
TEN HAG V THE BACKSTABBERS
I’ve been in locker rooms like Manchester United and it very rarely ends well. You have egos that are getting stronger and United feels a bit toxic.
Attitudes and behind-the-scenes factions see teams soar and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what happened at Old Trafford.
The body language, the arm throwing, the storming of the pitch and the anger at teammates, you can see it from a mile away. In my own experience in awkward locker rooms, I’ve seen small groups of players whispering and blaming others.
They were pointing fingers, saying some people let us down every week, with lots of backstabbing and not enough looks in the mirror.
Then there is often no trust in the manager either. So Erik ten Hag – good luck buddy!
Erik ten Hag set to enter toxic dressing room at Manchester United this summer