Juventus had no idea what hit them and Bayern Munich weren’t expecting it either but Liverpool are forewarned, forearmed and not so foolish. They are also better. The Villarreal manager, Unai Emery, insists that having beaten two giants en route to the Champions League semi-final his team no longer have the element of surprise to help see them through. Instead, they must produce the “perfect” performance to defeat a Liverpool team he described as “updated and improved” – and it was “magnificent” before.
Emery was sitting on the bench when Sevilla defeated Liverpool in the 2016 Europa League final at the end of Jürgen Klopp’s first season at the club and in the stands in Madrid when they won the Champions League three years later. He has also experienced defeat at Anfield with Arsenal. Now he says he will sit at the side of the pitch at Anfield and face a team who are different again, the product of a plan and the personality of their manager, evolved into something even more complete than ever.
“We played Klopp’s team in that final in 2016 and the fact that they’re here in 2022 says a lot about patience, belief and the leadership [needed] to build a team,” Emery said. “This is the best Liverpool I’ve seen. I was there when that magnificent Liverpool won the Champions League and this year watching them, analysing them, it is better. Liverpool are in a great moment, with a project that has been growing with Klopp growing for years.
“I see an updated and improved version. They have found excellence in certain players,” Emery said, offering an analysis that spoke of admiration and dismissing suggestions that Liverpool could be stopped simply by playing deep and denying them space to run into.
“A team that was characterised by running extremely well, superb into spaces, that pressed very high and won the ball back very quickly, has now found a way for players to combine and find spaces inside,” he said. “They are a team with a very clear identity that Klopp has designed and improved upon. There was the intensity, the full-backs attacking, a lot of crosses. Now you see players with good feet inside, like Thiago [Alcântara], like Fabinho, like [Sadio] Mané who is playing inside more. In previous years Mané would get behind you fast – he was hard to stop running in space; now he comes inside, has the ball, there’s more pause, more combinations with teammates, links with [Mohamed] Salah. They have signed Luis Díaz who can dribble, who is a presence inside, able to combine and also play with the intensity they want, someone who can change the pace and play in intermediate positions [between lines].
“You see a Liverpool built in the image of their manager: with a smile, happiness, energy. And as well as that, as the ability to run, which they always had, there’s a pause now. They might find it harder against deep defences but that happens to everyone and this is a side that can play deeper, open the pitch and accumulate players inside, an improved team.”
It is a side alerted to the threat faced by Villarreal, unlikely to fall into the trap Juventus and Bayern did. The Spanish side felt that they had been underestimated and maybe even disrespected by their previous opponents; the only lament is that a similar mistake is so unlikely to be made by Liverpool.
“The surprise element has declined,” Emery said. “In the first tie against Juventus, the surprise element was there with us not being favourites and also going 1-0 down, which was important in terms of Juventus not reacting. Against Bayern I think it was important too, enabling us to play from deep position [in the second leg].
“That’s not the case any more: if you’re in the semi-final it is because you deserve it. And what we have heard from Liverpool, the things they have said have been very intelligent, the respect they have shown – they know us, they know that it will be hard, the potential we have. They’re favourites, but with respect.
“We have to analyse, prepare, produce the best version of ourselves, let the wave carry us. We have to try to get the perfect game: we know this is a semi-final and that we’re playing the biggest favourite, but we believe in ourselves and we want to have our place on the pitch. It’s not a case of finishing and being satisfied [to be here], no: we play a team that under normal circumstances could be better than us but we have our mechanisms, our response, and we have to seek ways to beat them, to compete. Above all, we’re going to live it.”