Villarreal vs Liverpool: Steve McManaman hopes Reds do not think hard work is done

Former Liverpool winger fears complacency could cost Klopp's side in Europa League tie, he tells The Independent

Matt Gatward
Thursday 28 April 2016 07:45 BST
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Steve McManaman in his punditry role on BT Sport
Steve McManaman in his punditry role on BT Sport

Steve McManaman has experience on his side when it comes to talking about glory in Europe. He is, after all, a double Champions League winner which not many Englishmen can lay claim to. So when he discusses Liverpool’s chances in the Europa League ahead of Thursday’s first leg match against Villarreal he is well worth listening to - and he hopes there isn’t a sense of ‘and now for the easy bit’ at his former club.

“I hope there isn't an impression that after beating United and Dortmund in the previous rounds, it’s job done,” the former winger, who won the European Cup twice with Real Madrid and is now a BT Sport pundit, tells The Independent. “That’s the impression that some people are talking about. Once you’ve beaten these big, cool, trendy teams in Manchester and Dortmund with 75 and 80,000 seater stadiums, you think: ‘ah we’re going to a, you know, low-key team in Spain with a 25,000-seater stadium, who haven't got any European history, oh, we should beat them - we’re Liverpool’.

“You get that impression you really do because if anything Sevilla [one of the other semi-finalists] are a more popular team than Villarreal but Villarreal are fourth in La Liga and are playing well and look as if they are going to qualify for the Champions League next year. So it shows that they are doing something proper this year.

“I don’t agree with the fact that they've beaten Dortmund so they are going to go on and win the trophy and it’s all easy because Dortmund were the favourites. Villarreal are a really good side and good at home. So it'll be a hard game for Liverpool and they’ll really have to be on their mettle.”

Having said that, McManaman, when pushed, does believe his former club will win the tie - if the attitude is right. “I fancy Liverpool to reach the final. They are playing well. They’re in a good place at the moment even though they let that 2-0 lead slip [against Newcastle at the weekend]. They seem to all know what their jobs are… But the game against Villarreal will be very difficult because Spanish teams are strong, they always are. And Villarreal are not fourth in La Liga for nothing even though their form has dropped off a bit lately. But their form in the Europa League is very good and it’s very strong at El Madrigal.”

Liverpool enjoy their thrilling win over Dortmund
Liverpool enjoy their thrilling win over Dortmund (Getty)

McManaman has, of course, first-hand experience of playing at El Madrigal from his Real days and knows it is an unusual venue. “The ground is hostile. It’s only small, it’s not an 80,000 seater like the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. It’s not as plush as other grounds. It’s not something Liverpool will necessarily be used to. The grounds in the Premier League are all gorgeous. This will be different.”

But it’s not just the surroundings Liverpool will have to come to terms with. “They’ll be faced with a different type of opposition,” McManaman says. “They are good on the ball, move it around. The fact they have beaten Atletico and Real at home this season shows that this is going to be a hard team to get hold of. McManaman has also been impressed with striker Cedric Bakambu who partners Roberto Soldado in attack - “he’s creative but also the one who scores all the goals and his record in the Europa League is very good” and points to the centre of Liverpool’s defence where Dejan Lovren and Kolo Toure could team up as a cause for concern.

“Whoever plays at centre-half will have to play well as a partnership because Liverpool have let in goals of late. They let two in at the weekend when they should have won the game, they let three in against Dortmund - so they need to be stronger.”

So, has McManaman been impressed so far with Jurgen Klopp’s reign at Anfield? “I think he’s been very good. It’s easy for me as an former Liverpool player to be positive but when I speak to the likes of Paul Scholes or Owen Hargreaves - they really like him and when I’ve bumped into other ex players from, for example, Arsenal or Chelsea, they say: ‘God, I wish we got him’.

“He’s very charismatic in his interviews but the main thing is on the pitch and he seems to have Liverpool moving in a good direction. He has implemented a style of play and they are doing it well. If Liverpool get to a final that will be two finals he’s taken them to in his first six months, so that bodes well. It’s positive moving forward and you just hope the board will give him the finances to go and bring in his own type of players to take the team further next year.”

He’s very charismatic in his interviews but the main thing is on the pitch and he seems to have Liverpool moving in a good direction

&#13; <p>Steve McManaman on Jurgen Klopp</p>&#13;

But McManaman does not believe Klopp needs to throw away the sauce, just add a bit more meat. “I’d rather have a beefed up squad,” he says. “They need to bring in a few players in the summer to improve it. It’s quite easy just to get rid of experienced players - for example Joe Allen, who’s been really good lately - but I’d rather have them. When there are a few injuries it looks a bit threadbare. There have been a lot of debuts for a lot of younger kids. So I don’t mind the likes of Toure and Allen signing new contracts.”

That does not mean that McManaman, who has coached at the Liverpool academy, is not impressed with the players bubbling under at Anfield. “I’ve worked with a lot of the youngsters and I like them a lot. They’re not all kids - some are 21, 22 - but the likes of Sheyi Ojo has done very well and Ryan Kent, another tricky winger, has been in and out of squads, Kevin Stewart looked very assured in central midfield the other day. Brad Smith, Connor Randall, Pedro Chirivella, Cam Branagan, I’m thrilled that so many of them have made their debuts. It’s a huge thing to pull on a Liverpool shirt.

“But the fact that I can name eight who have played, while brilliant for the academy, shows that the first-team squad needs beefing. That wouldn’t happen at the likes of Man City, Arsenal or Chelsea.”

But I’m thrilled to say I was an idiot because it is the most amazing, incredible, romantic story

&#13; <p>Steve McManaman on Leicester City</p>&#13;

So with a bit more quality Liverpool are top four shoo-ins next season, right? Wrong. McManaman is delighted and amazed in equal measure with Leicester’s season - “Four months ago I was happy to say ‘ah, they won’t sustain it because teams with smaller squads don’t’. But I’m thrilled to say I was an idiot because it is the most amazing, incredible, romantic story” - but he feels next season will be very different. “This year’s a freak. Next year with Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte and maybe others coming in, there will be a huge amount of cash being spent on a lot of players.

“I’d hope Klopp doesn't go too crazy with singings in the summer but brings in a few, hits the season running and can get into a Champions League spot - but it will be difficult.”

McManaman talks passionately about the game and his love of Liverpool, the city and the club that he represented for nine years, is evident. Our conversation turns to Hillsborough and he has been moved by the verdicts of the Inquest and is delighted that the families can find some peace. “It was a great day,” he says. “The families heard what they wanted to hear and that’s fantastic. They can hopefully move on with their lives.”

BT Sport is your home of unmissable live football. Watch Villarreal v Liverpool in the UEFA Europa League semi-final exclusively live on BT Sport Europe from 7:15pm on Thursday

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