Villarreal - Liverpool Preview: Reds without key men for first leg of semi-final tie

Liverpool visit Spain for the first leg against Villarreal on Thursday.

Villarreal - Liverpool Preview: Reds without key men for first leg of semi-final tie
(photo: vavel)

Liverpool face Villarreal away from home in the first leg of their Europa League semi final on Thursday, hoping to end a week clouded with off-field stories on a positive note.

The Reds flew out to Spain on Thursday, and will be hoping to take a positive result away from the El Madrigal ahead of the return leg at Anfield next week.

Justice, Sakho, and now the semi-final...

Of course, Thursday's result won't be the most important event surrounding Liverpool FC this week. 

On Tuesday, the courts delivered a verdict that the 96 fans that died at Hillsborough 27 years ago were unlawfully killed, and that fan behaviour on the day had no part to play. It was a momentus day for the families, club and football fans in general. 

Wednesday's news, although not as important, does put a sour note on the week. It was reported that Mamadou Sakho won't be contesting the failed drugs test that UEFA charged with him last week, the Frenchman now facing a lengthy ban over a 'fat burner' that was found in his system in March.

Now though, all eyes lie on the upcoming last four tie.

How has each side got here? Starting with the Reds...

Liverpool remain the only unbeaten team in this season's competition, having not lost in any of their 12 games, the only team to go 12 unbeaten in one season since the competition began.

They eased through a group containing Bordeaux, FC Sion and Rubin Kazan fairly easily, but the real drama started when the knockout stages began. 

Beating Augsburg 1-0 at home was enough to see them through by the same aggregate scoreline in the round of 32, with two heavyweight clashes against Manchester United following. The Reds won 2-0 in front of a cauldron of noise at Anfield in the first leg, progressing 3-1 overall after drawing away from home.

If that wasn't enough for fans, the quarter final against Borussia Dortmund was something else. A tense affair in Germany ended 1-1, setting up a grandstand finish back in Liverpool, which was what they got.

3-1 down on the night, 4-2 on aggregate in the second half, the Reds needed three goals in half an hour to progress, an unthinkable test against one of the best teams in Europe. They managed to do it though, with Philippe Coutinho and the aforementioned Sakho scoring before Dejan Lovren nodded in an injury time winner in front of the Kop.

Lovren's winner against Dortmund sparked pandemonium (photo: AP)
Lovren's winner against Dortmund sparked pandemonium (photo: AP)

Villarreal have shown their quality too

Having lost their first game of the competition, the Spaniards put together four wins on the trot to qualify from a group containing themselves, Viktoria Plzen, Rapid Wien and Dinamo Minsk

Many wrote them off when they were drawn against Napoli in the first knockout round, but they produced excellent display's both home and away to edge through 2-1 on aggregate. 

Bayer Leverkusen were put to bed in the last 16, a 2-0 win at home followed up by a goalless stalemate in Germany, illustrating their defensive qualities. The quarter final was easier than expected, Sparta Praha beaten 6-3 on aggregate.

Recent form

Neither team come into the game having won on their most recent outing. Liverpool had beaten Bournemouth and Everton following the Dortmund game, but slipped up at home to Newcastle United on Saturday, throwing away a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2. 

Villarreal lost away to Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid after easing past Sparta in the quarter final second leg, and played out a fairly dull affair against Real Sociedad on Sunday - the game ended without a goal.

Villarreal were held at the weekend (photo: La Liga)
Villarreal were held at the weekend (photo: La Liga)

Team news

Liverpool are without four key men for the game. Sakho is an obvious one, joining Emre Can, Jordan Henderson and Divock Origi on the sideline. All those three have suffered injuries in recent weeks that could end their season's. Danny Ings and Joe Gomez are long-term absentees.

Christian Benteke is back after a month out through injury and is likely to make the bench, with Jurgen Klopp's toughest decision who to start up front out of Daniel Sturridge and Roberto Firmino

Villarreal are without striker Leo Baptistao, but have Cedric Bakambu fit and available - the striker has nine goals in the competition already this season. Jaume Costa and Mateo Musacchio are doubts.

Predicted Liverpool XI: Mignolet, Clyne, Lovren, Toure, Moreno, Milner, Allen, Lallana, Coutinho, Firmino, Sturridge.

Predicted Villarreal XI: Asjeno, Mario, Bailly, Ruiz, Rukavina, Bruno, Castillejo, Trigueros, Suarez, Soldado, Bakambu.