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  1. Now we enter the real business end of the Champions League, with a chance to effectively have one foot in the final at the Stade de France in May. Villarreal have almost reached this stage under the radar, though they did beat Juventus and Bayern along the way, so they are no mugs. They are a typical Unai Emery side, mediocre in their domestic league but a results-getting machine in Europe. Emery was Sevilla coach went they won the Europa League three seasons running (we were the victims on the third occasion), and he won it with Villarreal last season, beating the (red) Mancs in the final. He also reached the final with Arsenal in 2019. On paper the opposition always look stronger but he has shown that the game isn’t won on paper. Fortunately we have a manager who is well aware of that, and who has worked tirelessly on forging the right mentality from his players no matter the situation. Gumption. Organisation. Order. Drive. Electricity. Bravery. Effervescence. Nous. Ingenuity. Nerve. Grit. I don’t ask for much. We have only come up against Villarreal twice in our history, and that was in the semi finals of the 2015/16 Europa League, with the winner going on to the final in Basel. The game at Anfield was the second leg in early May 2016, and we began the game 1-0 down on aggregate following a late winner for the Spaniards. Anfield under the lights on a European night is a daunting prospect for any opposition, even if they are coming up against a Liverpool squad still trying to shake off the trauma of the dark final year of the Rodgers era. New boss Klopp had worked wonder to get a talented but flaky squad to the final of the League Cup, and he was aiming for European success too. The reds had defeated his old club Dortmund (led by his successor Thomas Tuchel) in the last round in a match that was one of the great European nights in the club’s illustrious history. Liverpool began with a flurry, and soon levelled the aggregate score when Studge mis-kicked at the far post only for the ball to bounce in off the unfortunate Soriano. Lallana had a chance to make it 2 but missed his kicked after a great ball in from Big Game James. It was in the second half where we began to properly dominate. Studge got his goal and put us ahead in the tie with a scuffed effort that rolled in off a post, and Lallana made sure of victory by turning home after yet another scuffed effort from the initial shot. In between, the visitors were reduced to 10 men after Ruiz got his marching orders following a second yellow for a foul on Phil, and Bobby displayed some outrageous skill to bamboozle ex-Spurs striker Robert Soldado, who’d been in shithouse gobshite mode all night. Probably still traumatised by Flanno’s epic recovery challenge on him a couple of years earlier. We were well worth our place in the final and the chance to claim our 9th continental trophy. Early March 2016 saw the latest instalment of the MCU top the box office, and it had the scope of the superhero team-up from a year earlier (The Avengers: Age of Ultron), only this time with a slight twist. Captain America: Civil War introduced audiences to both Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s T’challa/Black Panther. The basic premise is that while the UN recognises The Avengers as a force for good, it feels they need some checks and balances, at the very least to try and avoid the sort of destruction seen in the events of the previous Avengers team-ups. Tony Stark supports the need for control (he did inadvertently unleash Ultron upon the world after all) whereas Steve Rogers is opposed. This division leads to a rift not just between the two men, but also amongst all the superheroes. They’ll need to pick a side. It got the visuals and the humour typical of the MCU (the humour bit they’ve always done better than the DCU), but there is no ‘big bad’ as such, rather a telling of the effect of division and two sides with differing views on meeting the same goal. It’s not quite like the X-Men franchise when discussing that theme but it does a good job. Kevin Feige’s run as producer has at the very least ensured that the MCU stories are entertaining for audiences. By now, the nucleus of this squad is well versed in managing the demands of European football and on paper should be too much for the side from a little town just outside Valencia. However, as I said before, it’s not about what’s on paper but what is out there on the pitch. As I write, I’m not sure if any of our lads are suspended for this game, or which of them are on a yellow. We will require optimum levels of motivation, concentration and application to ensure that there is no room for complacency. We have the tools to put ourselves in a great position for the second leg. Let’s show it.
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