during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Newcastle United at Anfield on April 23, 2016 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.

Liverpool visits Villarreal for first leg of Europa League semifinal

Liverpool has been in the news this week for more somber reasons, as the inquest into the Hillsborough tragedy has dominated headlines.

Tonight, in the first leg of the Europa League semifinal (3 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1), Liverpool visits Villarreal in an effort to shift the focus back to the pitch.

With a nine-point gap between it and fourth-place Arsenal, this competition is the safest route to Champions League football for the English giants next season.

That bodes well for Liverpool, which is unbeaten in 12 Europa League matches this season.

The Reds will have to do without Jordan Henderson and Emre Can due to injuries, while Mamadou Sakho will also be unavailable in the wake of the investigation into his failed drug test. Christian Benteke, however, may be ready to come off the bench.

Villarreal, meanwhile, is in fourth place in La Liga and the Yellow Submarine is nearly at full strength for this match, missing only striker Leo Baptista.

That means Liverpool will have to contend with Europa League top scorer Cedric Bakambu and former Tottenham striker Roberto Soldado.

Villarreal manager Marcelino is embracing the role of underdog, but still believes his side can advance.

“Liverpool might be the favorite — the club, their history and the fact that they knocked out Borussia Dortmund all add up — but we don’t consider ourselves to be less than them,” he said. “We are going to give everything from our side to eliminate this legendary team.

“We don’t have any pressure on us. I’m really satisfied with and grateful to this squad for getting to this semi-final. We are very hopeful and convinced that we are capable of beating Liverpool, and all the while we’ll be enjoying the occasion.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp knows the challenge his team is facing.

“We are here because we respected this tournament each round,” he said. “There is no doubt from my side. Villarreal did the same until now so it is not about talking about the final. Villarreal show the highest level of football each week; the Spanish league is unbelievably strong and they play with such balance, structure and discipline and if you let them they play football.”

Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Sevilla

In the other semifinal match (3 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2), Shakhtar Donetsk hosts Sevilla in an effort to stop the Spanish club from winning its third-consecutive Europa League title.

The Ukrainian side is still playing home matches in Lviv because of unrest in the country, which is about 500 miles west of its usual home stadium.

About Randy Capps

South Carolina native, Fulham apologist, writer and sports fanatic.