MADRID (AP) — The small Spanish city of Villarreal could be facing its last Champions League night in a while if it doesn’t pull off another upset on Tuesday against Liverpool.
The modest club ousted Juventus and Bayern Munich on its way to a surprise semifinal appearance. But if it can’t reverse a 2-0 first-leg loss against the English club, recent history shows it may not have another chance to play in the competition any time soon.
Villarreal is only seventh in the Spanish league, nine points from the final qualification place for the European competition with four rounds to go.
The team’s chances of qualifying through the Spanish league took a hit on Saturday as it lost at second-to-last-place Alavés, when coach Unai Emery had to rest some of his regular starters ahead of the match against Liverpool.
That means only the Champions League title is likely to allow the club back into Europe’s top club competition next season.
And returning after that may not be easy either, considering Villarreal’s recent record.
Based in a city of 50,000 people in southern Spain, Villarreal hadn’t played in the Champions League since the 2011-12 season. Before that, it had only qualified for the tournament in 2005-06 and in 2008-09. This is its third appearance in the knockout stage, and first since it made it to the quarterfinals in 2009. It reached the semifinals in 2006.
“We are going through a historic moment. Our people are very proud,” Emery said Monday. “We’ve been playing well at home. Hopefully in front of our fans we will have our best performance and advance.”
Villarreal hasn’t lost a home match in more than five months, since a Spanish league loss to Barcelona last November.
Villarreal fans are preparing a big party to try to help Villarreal pull off an unlikely comeback. Mosaics will be displayed inside the La Cerámica Stadium, and a corridor of fans will welcome the team’s bus carrying the squad from the training center to the stadium.
Both of Villarreal’s eliminations in the knockout stage came against an English club — Arsenal.
Villarreal qualified for the Champions League this season by winning the second-tiered Europa League for its first significant title.
Even making it back to the Europa League or the Europa Conference League may be difficult for Emery’s team as it sits four points behind sixth-place Real Sociedad and five points from fifth-place Real Betis.
Liverpool is looking to reach its third Champions League final in five seasons. The last time it was eliminated in a knockout round after winning the first leg was in the 2001-02 quarterfinals against Bayer Leverkusen.
The English club won all five away games it played in the Champions League this season, including against Inter Milan in the round of 16 and Benfica in the quarterfinals.
It remained unclear if Emery will be able to count of some key players because of injuries, including veteran defender Raúl Albiol and forwards Gerard Moreno and Arnaut Danjuma.
Moreno missed the first leg with a muscle problem, while Albiol is nursing a knock. In the first leg against Liverpool, the defender became the oldest Spaniard to play in a Champions League semifinal at age 36.
Midfielder Yéremy Pino is out with a muscle problem.
Emery, highly successful in the Europa League, is enjoying his best Champions League campaign ever after never getting past the round of 16 in his previous attempts.
“We are very motivated to be playing a Champions League semifinal at home,” Emery said. “We want to enjoy this moment with our fans.”
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