A lot can change in a year, and Samuel Chukwueze is certainly proof of that.
Circa last year the wide attacker was being stretchered off at the Emirates Stadium at the half-hour mark, knowing full well he was unlikely to make it to the Europa League final if Villarreal advanced to the decider at Arsenal’s expense.
Unai Emery’s team did make it but Chukwueze played no part. On the Yellow Submarine’s greatest European night, the wide attacker was absent, ergo missing out on what would have been the most important game of his career against Manchester United.
He sat out the subsequent months and missed out on Villarreal’s start to the season, playing no part in their European Super Cup defeat by Chelsea.
Thus, it was pleasing that the winger returned to European action with a goal in the Spanish side’s 4-1 win over Young Boys, a situation he likely never imagined having been introduced with one minute of normal time remaining.
Chukwueze had only three touches of the ball but that was all he needed to score on his Champions League debut. He was on the pitch for six minutes, yet there was time to put the icing on what was the side from the province of Castellon’s first win in the competition in 10 games.
If the Super Eagle’s impact in that game was not especially telling, it foreshadowed another late strike in Villarreal’s giant-killing of Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of Europe’s esteemed club competition.
It has brought the Yellow Submarine two games away from featuring in the decider of the continent’s top tournaments a year apart but they have to eliminate an English side this time, 16 years after a semi-final defeat by Arsenal prevented the Spanish outfit from facing off with Barcelona in the 2006 final.
Defeating Juventus was an unexpected result and getting the better of FC Hollywood was a huge statement. Getting the better of this Liverpool side will be a dream even for a side not alien to a giant-killing like this Villarreal side.
Jurgen Klopp’s men are on fire and remain 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 Egypt superstar had netted once for club and country in 10 games and was experiencing a six-game run without scoring when the outfit from Merseyside welcomed Benfica in the second leg of the last round. Since then, Salah has scored twice and assisted as many, signalling a return to something close to his finest.
His next goal in this competition takes him to 34, two behind Didier Drogba and Sergio Aguero who are joint-top for goals scored in the competition for an English side in Europe’s top competition.
Breaking down what will be a resolute Villareal defence will be an assignment Sadio Mane also understands.
The Senegal star’s strong impact in Portugal was crucial to the Reds on a night when Salah’s goalscoring deserted him and five goal contributions since his goal at Benfica means the Africa Cup of Nations winner heads into the semis in arguably in his best shape of the season.
In the other semi-final, Manchester City seek to eliminate another side from the Spanish capital, continuing Pep Guardiola’s rivalry with Real Madrid.
Pep has often leaned on Riyad Mahrez on these big European nights and, despite not coming up trumps against Atletico Madrid at the Etihad in the quarters, the wide attacker’s skillset and sitting out 70 minutes of the weekend’s 5-1 thrashing of Watford suggest he features on Tuesday night.
Six goals in this year’s competition — three more than Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling — also validate the Algerian’s decisiveness in Europe which undoubtedly came to the fore in last season’s semis against Paris Saint-Germain when he netted three of the Cityzens’ four goals in the tie.
Such a return will please his manager who has called upon his players to play without fear against the 13-time winners.
“It’s an honour to be here in the semi-final playing Real Madrid,” Pep said on Tuesday. “We have to have the desire to compete against them.
“To play against Real Madrid is an incredible test. We want to try it. We need to suffer, to stick together, when we have the ball try to attack.”
There is now little margin for error with the Champions League in its denouement and the increased jeopardy for the remaining sides mean there is a whole lot to lose.
All but one of the semi-finalists has at least an African star on their roster, and their managers will hope they deliver the goods on what will be huge European nights on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Adwoa Adubia News