Champions League: Chukwueze simply makes up for lost time with Villarreal
A lot can change in a year, and Samuel Chukwueze is certainly proof of that.
Around last year, the wide striker was stretched out at the Emirates Stadium on the half-hour mark, knowing full well he was unlikely to make it to the Europa League final if Villarreal progressed to the decider at the Arsenal’s costs.
Unai Emery’s side got through but Chukwueze played no part. On the Yellow Submarine’s biggest European night, the wide forward was absent, missing what would have been the most important game of his career against Manchester United.
He sat out the following months and missed Villarreal’s start to the season, playing no part in their European Super Cup loss to Chelsea.
Thus, it was nice that the winger returned to European action with a goal in the Spanish side’s 4-1 win over Young Boys, a situation he probably never imagined would have been introduced with one minute of regulation time remaining.
Chukwueze only had three touches, but that was all he needed to score on his Champions League debut. He stayed on the pitch for six minutes, but he had time to put the icing on what was the province of Castellon’s first win in the competition in 10 games.
While the Super Eagle’s impact in that match wasn’t particularly telling, it foreshadowed another late strike in Villarreal’s giant kill against Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of Europe’s prestigious club competition.
It took the Yellow Submarine two games away from being in the continent’s top tournament decider a year apart, but they have to knock out an England side this time, 16 years after a semi-final loss to Arsenal prevented the Spanish team from facing each other. with Barcelona in the 2006 final.
Beating Juventus was an unexpected outcome and getting the better of FC Hollywood was a huge statement. Getting the upper hand over this Liverpool team will be a dream even for a team that is no stranger to a massacre of giants like this Villarreal team.
Jurgen Klopp’s men are on fire and are on course for an unprecedented quadruple. With Mohamed Salah now back among the goals and assists after a brief lull, the Reds can be confident of reaching a second continental final in four years.
The Egyptian superstar had scored once for club and country in 10 games and was on a six-game clean streak when the Merseyside side hosted Benfica in the second leg of the final round. Since then, Salah has scored twice and assisted as many, signaling a return to something close to his best.
His next goal in this competition takes it to 34, two behind Didier Drogba and Sergio Aguero who lead in goals scored in the competition for an English side in Europe’s top competition.
Breaking down what will be a resolute Villareal defense will be a task that Sadio Mane also understands.
The Senegal star’s strong impact in Portugal was crucial for the Reds on a night Salah’s goal gave him up and five goal contributions since his Benfica goal means the Africa Cup of Nations winner is heading towards the semi-finals in probably his best form of the season.
In the other semi-final, Manchester City look to knock out another side from the Spanish capital, continuing Pep Guardiola’s rivalry with Real Madrid.
Pep has often leaned on Riyad Mahrez on those big European nights and, although he didn’t find trump cards against Atletico Madrid at the Etihad in the quarters, the striker’s skills wide and 70 minutes of Watford’s 5-1 thrashing at the weekend suggests he features on Tuesday night.
Six goals in this year’s competition – three more than Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling – also validates the Algerian’s determination in Europe which was no doubt showcased in last season’s semi-finals against Paris Saint-Germain when he scored three of Cityzens’ four goals in the tie.
Such a return will please his manager who has called on his players to play without fear against the 13-time winners.
“It’s an honor to be here in the semi-final against Real Madrid,” Pep said on Tuesday. “We must have the desire to compete with them.
“Playing against Real Madrid is an incredible test. We want to try it. We need to suffer, to stick together, when we have the ball, to try to attack.
There is now little margin for error with the Champions League in its outcome and the heightened danger to the remaining teams means there is a lot to lose.
All but one of the semi-finalists have at least one African star on their list, and their managers are hoping they deliver the goods on what will be huge European nights on Tuesday and Wednesday.