The Reds are without four key players as they tackle Villarreal in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final, which they hope won’t disrupt their recent harmony.
It was only 133 days after arriving in Liverpool on a private plane from Dortmund on 8 October last year that Jurgen Klopp had finally been in a position to field an unchanged line-up.
The start of his tenure on Merseyside was swamped by injury concerns: captain Jordan Henderson, Dejan Lovren, Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke were sidelined before his first day at Melwood. Within his first week, Danny Ings and Joe Gomez ruptured their ACLs while Daniel Sturridge picked up a hamstring problem shortly before the German’s debut in the dugout against Tottenham.
In January, Klopp had to then navigate a defensive crisis that left him with no established centre-backs. By mid-February though, the treatment table began to clear and the manager had the luxury of selecting the same starting 11 for the 6-0 scorching of Aston Villa and the goalless Europa League Round-of-32 tie at Augsburg.
Since the Valentine’s Day massacre of the west Midlands side, Liverpool have lost only once in regulation time in 16 games. Klopp has often referenced consistency and chemistry for the team’s upturn in form, stating the players finally have the opportunity to be “in tune with each other”.
But as the Reds prepare for the first-leg of the Europa League semi-final with Villarreal, that harmony has been disrupted. The 48-year-old will be without four players who would have otherwise started on Thursday night. Henderson and Emre Can, with knee and ankle damage respectively, would have been stationed in the centre of the park.
Divock Origi, who was fielded from the off in both legs of the quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund and scored home and away, would have tormented markers again had he not been the victim of a nasty tackle by Everton’s Ramiro Funes Mori. And at the heart of defence, Mamadou Sakho who was instrumental against Klopp’s former side as well as in the previous round against Manchester United, would have been lining up alongside Dejan Lovren instead of being investigated by UEFA over an anti-doping violation.
It is the latter that provides the most discord. Liverpool, having dumped their fiercest rivals out of Europe as well as the tournament favourites 5-4 on aggregate after an astounding home game, enter the semi-final with the distraction of the France international failing a drugs test.
As per a joint-decision between Klopp, the club’s hierarchy and the player, Sakho will be unavailable for selection during the process. While Liverpool “wait for the next steps” with the centre-back, they have to make sure they continue taking the right steps in the tournament.
“When I came in October, Basel wasn’t a real thing to think about, now it’s not far away,” the manager said at Estadio El Madrigal on Wednesday evening, reminding his side just how much they’ve progressed in six intensive months.
Unlike the previous games against United and Dortmund, with their gigantic narratives, there is no special storyline around the clash with Villarreal, only a well-balanced side also intent on walking out at St. Jakob-Park on May 18.
Even the half-hour drive from Castellon Airport to the stadium is hugely underwhelming; the view out the bus window dominated by warehouses and mass stacks of ceramic tiles.
It is tiny, uneventful town with the 25 000-capacity Estadio El Madrigal able to hold half its population. But it’s these very factors that make Villarreal’s achievements all the more applaudable.
Currently fourth in La Liga, and having gone 11 games unbeaten in the tournament, Liverpool will chiefly require composure and discipline against their Spanish opponents rather than the unabating fire that fuelled them against Dortmund and United.
“This is the highest level of football [as] Villarreal shows each week,” Klopp explained.
“Big form in the Spanish league, playing with such good balance, very good structure in the game, very disciplined, good defending, good counterattacks – if you let them, they play football.
“It’s everything you need to be a good team and for a club in a small city in Spain that’s great.
“They have made a lot of good decisions to be here and we should not hope that they will make only wrong decisions tomorrow.
“We have to be prepared for our best game and that’s what we try to do.”
Klopp was also keen to stress that Liverpool were in the final four of the tournament because “they respected every round and every opponent”.
Villarreal may not evoke the enmity United did, nor generate the emotion Dortmund managed, but the Reds will dare not underestimate them.
They have not won any of their last 10 meetings with English teams and Liverpool will want to keep it that way.