Youngsters step up but Liverpool need to smoothen edges
ANYONE who doubts the ability of Champions League money to transform a football club should visit El Madrigal.
Little more than a ramshackle hovel when Everton visited in the qualifying stage three seasons ago, the stadium is currently undergoing a massive renovation programme financed mainly by the income from Villarreal's run all the way to the semi-finals of Europe's top club competition after seeing off the Blues.
No wonder one of the reconstructed stands is to be named in honour of Perluigi Collina.
All joking aside, the strides Villarreal have made in the last few years are testament to a club of humble origins which is run in the right manner and the success they are currently enjoying proves that it is possible to mix it with the big boys,.
Having finished second to Real Madrid in La Liga last season, the Yellow Submarines will again be in the Champions League this time around and, particularly on their own patch, will be a fearsome proposition for any team unfortunate enough to be drawn against them.
The same can be said for Liverpool, of course, and they also have to prove that they have what it takes to compete at the top of their domestic league.
That is why Rafa Benitez is hell bent on improving his squad before the new campaign kicks off and even without Gareth Barry, the Reds boss could still give three players their first team debuts against the Spaniards.
Robbie Keane's was the most eagerly awaited of course and, despite only having completed his ÃÂ£20m move to Anfield 48 hours earlier, the Irishman slotted comfortably into the team and during a bright 45 minute cameo showed flashes of the talent which persuaded Benitez to part with such a sizeable transfer fee.
The returning Steven Gerrard took an instant liking to Keane's intelligent movement and looked to pick him out at every opportunity.
That happened more often than not and from one such link up Keane could have given Liverpool a first half lead, only for ring rustiness to intervene and a shot which should have troubled Lopez in the Villarreal goal ended up floating harmlessly over the bar.
The willowy David Ngog - pronounced N-go, making it inevitable he will be nicknamed "Wash" by his new team mates - struggled to make an impact but, like Keane, could have marked his first appearance for the Reds with a goal only to be denied by a smart save from Lopez.
Having failed to take the best two openings of the half it seemed inevitable that Liverpool would be made to pay for their profligacy and had it not been for the woodwork and a wonderful goal saving tackle by Stephen Darby they would have.
After Ibagaza hit the foot of the post Cani seemed certain to score only for Darby to appear from nowhere to get a toe onto his goalbound effort and divert it over.
Having impressed throughout pre-season, this was Darby's biggest test so far and despite being faced with the formidably classy Robert Pires and "protected" by Andriy Voronin the 19-year-old passed with flying colours.
Fellow reserve team product Krisztian Nemeth was the third debutant, teaming as the teenage Hungarian striker teamed up with Dani Pacheco in the second half. It was quite a jump for the young duo as the last time they appeared in the same side was against Aston Villa reserves but they showed little respect for reputations and gave the Villarreal defence a testing second half.
The blend of youth and experience seemed to suit Liverpool, although on occasion they did have to rely more on the latter than the former, as illustrated by a couple of interceptions by Jamie Carragher which showed how important experience is when it comes to reading the game.
Benitez will have been heartened by the consummate ease with which his reserve team players coped with such illustrious opposition though with Jay Spearing, Damien Plessis and Emiliano Insua also doing well.
The Reds boss has challenged all of the graduates from Gary Ablett's second string to prove they are able to survive at the top level and save him a fortune in the transfer market in the process.
On the evidence of last night and pre-season in general there seems more than a decent chance that his reserves could turn out to be golden but only time will tell.
The same commodity is not exactly in similar supply for recent acquisition Andrea Dossena who knows he has to deliver on his potential on a much shorter timescale but after a shaky start to his Liverpool career he showed against Villarreal that he does have quality, particularly going forward, and the Italian will be keen to build on this display.
There were plenty of plus points for Benitez and with Euro 2008 winning Spanish quartet Fernando Torres, Alvaro Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso and Pepe Reina returning to action after a delayed return to pre-season he will be delighted to have a full squad to work with, save for those who are currently trying to live up to the Olympian ideal.
On the negative side, the Spaniard will be slightly concerned and perhaps even irritated that Liverpool did not take the chances that came their way. Pacheco should have scored in the second half, Nemeth also went close and Torres fired wide, but when good chances come and go without being taken it amounts to a wasted opportunity to build confidence and belief ahead of the season.
But with more than two weeks to go before the new campaign kicks off Benitez will be confident that those rough edges will be smoothed off by the time the real action begins.
By then, he will also be hoping that the Champions League money he is spending on his squad will transform it into genuine title challengers - just like it is being used to turn El Madrigal into a top modern stadium.
VILLARREAL: Lopez, Gonzalo, Edmilson, Godin, Pires, Cani, Ibagaza, Llorente, Javi Venta, Angel, Eguren.
LIVERPOOL: Cavalieri (Reina, 81), Darby (Finnan, 46, Arbeloa, 71), Hyypia (Carragher, 46), Skrtel (Agger, 46), Dossena (Insua, 46), Benayoun (Pennant, 46), Gerrard (Spearing, 46), Plessis (Alonso, 71), Ngog (Kuyt, 46), Voronin (Pacheco, 46), Keane (Nemeth, 46, Torres, 71).
REFEREE: Miguel Gamez.