LIVERPOOL: There is no dispute that Villarreal deserve their place in the semi-final of the Champions League but Wednesday's (Apr 27) 2-0 defeat at Anfield against Liverpool exposed their limitations and limited options when faced with key injuries.
Spanish coach Unai Emery has rightly won plaudits for the way he has turned a collection of relatively modest and low-cost players into a last-four team in Europe's top club competition.
By knocking out Juventus and Bayern Munich in the previous rounds, Emery showed that his side's smart defending and effective counter-attacking could cause problems for clubs with far more illustrious histories.
The Villarreal coach was described by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp before this tie as the "King of the Cups" and he does indeed have a remarkable record in knockout competition.
Emery won the Europa League three times with Sevilla and triumphed in the same competition with Villarreal last season, beating Manchester United in the final. He won four domestic cups with Paris St Germain.
While the Spaniard’s time in charge at Arsenal was a disappointment, he still managed to take the London club to the Europa League final in 2019.
Plenty of teams in Spain and Europe can attest to how frustrating it can be to play against a defence so expertly marshalled by Pau Torres with a deep three-man midfield providing a line of protection to the back four.
For the opening 45 minutes at Anfield, there were indications that the approach might work but what was missing was the counter-attacking threat that is such a vital part of the gameplan.
Without key striker Gerard Moreno to partner him, Dutch forward Arnaut Danjuma was less of a danger than he has shown with his six goals in the competition this season.
Moreno's influence is such that Villarreal are unbeaten in this year's Champions League when he is on the field. He was missing for both defeats against Manchester United in the group stage.
Another key injury absence was winger Yeremi Pino, the pacey 19-year-old, who has been so impressive this season.
Samuel Chukwueze was moved into a more central role than he is accustomed to and never quite clicked with Danjuma against a rock-solid Liverpool defensive pairing of Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate.
Effective counter-attacks might have caused Liverpool to think twice about pushing their full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold so far forward but there was no sign of caution or fear from the pair.
After the break, Liverpool clearly upped the tempo, their midfield pushing higher and the Spanish resistance finally, with some inevitability, crumbled.
"We wanted to use direct, vertical football to relieve the pressure on us – that was our plan," said Torres.
"But we failed to connect with our front players. We were up against a very good, very strong opponent."
Torres suggested that it will be a very different game in Spain next Tuesday and promised that the team will rediscover the resourceful and clever approaches that took them past Juve and Bayern.
But the problem for Emery is that Liverpool play the same way away from the noise and colour of Anfield and will seek to swarm the Villarreal defence, pressing and counter-pressing and generally suffocating their opponents.
Villarreal must hope that Moreno and Pino can recover in time for the return. Unlike Liverpool, they don't have a bench full of internationals - another limitation at this level.
Moreno in particular is the heart and soul of the Villarreal team and his presence would give Emery different options.
"The match next week will be very different than tonight," promised the coach.
"It is very important in our home to change something, maybe tactically. They are going to suffer more than tonight."