Why Villarreal star Moreno has Klopp fearing a UCL comeback

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Villarreal may have been comprehensively outperformed by Liverpool in their Champions League semi-final first leg, but excitement in the tiny Spanish city remains high ahead of the return fixture.

Part of the reason for that, as well as for some optimism, is that Gerard Moreno may well be back on Tuesday.

The forward missed the 2-0 defeat at Anfield last week with a hamstring problem, but may force the issue to appear against the Reds at La Ceramica.

He is the man Jurgen Klopp highlighted as the potential danger for the second leg, and the Reds' coach was no doubt pleased to see that the Spain forward did not make the first game.

“It is not over, for the second game Gerard Moreno is back,” Klopp told reporters post-match on Merseyside. “It’s half-time, no more, no less.

"How much work is left to do? The full work. Nothing has happened yet.”

Without Moreno in the first leg, Villarreal’s plan did not work. They wanted to sit deep and shut down their opponents, to take a 0-0 draw or potentially more back to Spain.

However, with Moreno absent, the ball did not stick upfront when they tried to clear it. The 30-year-old has a velvet touch that would have given his side some relief from Liverpool’s asphyxiating press.

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Pervis Estupinan’s own goal and Sadio Mane’s strike, in the space of two second-half minutes, helped Liverpool to a comfortable home victory.

It was one which lured TalkSport broadcaster and former Chelsea player Jason Cundy into a broadside aimed at the Yellow Submarine, whom he accused of playing a “disgraceful” game.

"I don't know what I've just watched, but Villarreal are a disgrace,” he sneered. “That is a disgrace. UEFA must be watching that and thinking, 'We are in big trouble'. 

“If that's what's getting to the semi-final and facing English teams... Liverpool did not get out of second gear. It was shocking. Disgraceful. Liverpool are brilliant, but that was a disgrace to the Champions League.”

Words which did not go unnoticed in Spain, with Villarreal determined to make Cundy eat them on Tuesday night.

To do that, Moreno is vital.

Born in Catalunya, the striker came through Villarreal’s youth teams and eventually made his first-team debut for the club in the 2014-15 campaign. The following season, he signed for Espanyol and spent three solid, if unspectacular seasons there.

Villarreal brought him back in for €20 million (£17.5m/$23.5m) and he began to show his quality on a regular basis. In the 2019-20 season, he netted 18 La Liga goals in 35 appearances, before scoring 23 in 33 the following year, along with seven goals in Europe to help take the Yellow Submarine to Europa League glory.

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Netting against Chelsea in the European Super Cup in August, he overtook Giuseppe Rossi to become Villarreal’s all-time top scorer, and currently has 95 goals for the club.

Having made his international debut in 2019, he also helped Spain reach the Euro 2020 semi-finals last summer, and if his injury problems subside, should make Luis Enrique’s 2022 World Cup roster.

Despite the immense quality he possesses, both to score and create goals, but also on the ball as a dribbler, Moreno has a low profile outside of Spain, without much hype or fanfare. That could change if he becomes the wrecking ball to Liverpool’s quadruple hopes, though.

Juventus and Bayern Munich have, after all, already experienced how devastating Villarreal and Moreno can be.

After a 1-1 first-leg draw in Spain, the second leg against Juve was a tense 0-0 heading into the final 15 minutes. Enter Moreno.

In the 78th minute he broke the deadlock from the penalty spot, with Pau Torres and Arnaut Danjuma adding further goals as Villarreal surged past the Italians.

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Moreno then impressed as his side beat Bayern 1-0 at home, and then set up Samu Chukwueze’s late goal at the Allianz Arena to send Villarreal through, against the odds.

His absence at Anfield was a blow, although Villarreal coach Unai Emery is hopeful his team can turn the tables on Liverpool at home.

“In the semi-finals, the surprise factor that we could have had in the last 16 and quarter-finals had diluted,” admitted Emery after the first leg.

“Today was a question of resisting defensively to have a chance (at home) and we did it in some ways because there it will be different, and there we will get more out of it. 

“We know that we can compete with Liverpool but today we did not do it. In La Ceramica, we will try and make it so the game is completely different.” 

Moreno has 13 goals and six assists this season, down from the high standards established in previous years, but he has only made 26 appearances because of injury. When he does play, something happens.

Moreno has formed a dynamic and exciting partnership with Danjuma, who often profits from clever interplay with the Spaniard. And with their talisman returning, Villarreal still believe they have a chance.

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“If there’s one good thing this team has it’s that it believes, and it believes the second leg will be different,” said goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli. “We have all the confidence in the world, if not we’d let them go through to the final right now.

"Tuesday will be a totally different game, I have no doubts this team will show up.”

If Moreno does, and is in good enough condition, then Villarreal will too.

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