Villarreal v Liverpool: Reds too hot to handle

Liverpool take a 2-0 lead to Spain on Tuesday as they prepare to face Villarreal in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final showdown. Mark O'Haire shares his views...

Villarreal fall short at Alaves

Villarreal boss Unai Emery made eight changes to his team following last Wednesday night's Champions League clash with Liverpool as the Yellow Submarine were sunk 2-1 at rock-bottom Alaves on their return to domestic matters. Only Samu ChukwuezeDani Parejo and Pau Torres kept their place in the starting XI, and the Yellows fell short of expectations.

The latest La Liga loss leaves Villarreal behind in the race for a top-six finish in Spain, and subsequent Europa League qualification. Yet Emery also rang the changes ahead of defeats to relegation threatened-teams Cadiz and Levante in between crunch Champions League ties with Juventus and Bayern Munich in previous rounds of the competition.

Back at their Estadio de la Cerámica base, the Yellow Submarine have fitness doubts concerning star striker Gerard Moreno, plus fellow forward Arnaut Danjuma with the Dutchman a last-minute absentee at Alaves. Elsewhere, there are concerns over Yeremi Pino's involvement with Alberto Moreno certainly missing out through injury.

Liverpool roll on

Liverpool made five amendments to their starting XI ahead of Saturday's hard-earned 1-0 success at Newcastle in the Premier League, including leaving top scorer Mohamed Salah on the bench. However, the Reds grew into the game after a slow start and were dominating possession when Naby Keita struck the only goal of the game in the 19th minute.

Sadio Mane should have made it 2-0 before the break, whilst Diogo Jota also went close with a header. It certainly wasn't a vintage Liverpool performance, but the Merseysiders got the job done to stay in touch with Manchester City at the top of the table and keeping themselves firmly in the fight for an unprecedented quadruple.

Salah, Trent Alexander-ArnoldFabinho and Thiago are all expected to be recalled to the team on Tuesday night with James Milner, Naby Keita, Joe Gomez and Luis Diaz potentially making way. Forward pair Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi are Jurgen Klopp's only concerns with the Reds taking an almost fully-fit squad to Spain this midweek.

Reds firm favourites

Villarreal and Liverpool have crossed swords once before the current campaign in continental competition. The duo faced off in the Europa League semi-finals back in 2015/16 with the Yellow Submarine winning the first leg 1-0 in Spain before suffering a one-sided 3-0 reverse when travelling to Anfield to face Jurgen Klopp's charges six years ago.

Villarreal 5.00 are reigning Europa League champions and Unai Emery's men have knocked out European giants Juventus and Bayern Munich en-route to only their second-ever Champions League semi-final. The giant-slayers will again set-up in a rigid 4-4-2, prioritising a solid and well-drilled structure with the pace of Arnaut Danjuma during counter-attacks.

Liverpool 1.76 have now taken top honours in 21 of their last 25 matches across all competitions (W21-D3-L1), and that includes picking up W10-D2-L0 on their travels since mid-January. The Reds have won all five of their Champions League away days this term by an aggregate 15-5, scoring twice or more in every encounter.

Market anticipates goals

Over 2.5 Goals is again short at 1.70 here with the market anticipating another strong showing from Liverpool. However, I'm not convinced this second leg tie will follow such one-sided expectations with Unai Emery well capable of keeping Villarreal patient, competitive and focussed upon counter-attacking possibilities, wherever possible.

With the Spaniards sitting deep, providing two low blocks, Liverpool will be made to work hard for a result. But with the Reds' unrequired to go all-out offensive, it would be a surprise if this showdown broke out into an end-to-end shootout.

Liverpool's own defensive resilience deserves plenty of praise - the Merseysiders have accumulated a Premier League high of 21 clean sheets this term - leading us towards a potentially lower-scoring contest that market expectations. With that in mind Liverpool to win and Under 4.5 Goals at 1.96 appeals.

Jurgen Klopp's troops are the current favourites to lift the Champions League trophy and should still pack too much punch for Villarreal to handle, particularly with the Spaniards needing to open up late on if they're to chase a fairytale comeback.

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