Europa League preview: Liverpool 180 minutes from final

AP Photo/Jon Super

Previewing Thursday’s UEFA Europa League semifinal first legs set to take place in Spain and Ukraine…

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Villarreal vs. Liverpool — 3:05 p.m. ET

When Jurgen Klopp took charge at Liverpool back in October, he did so with the understanding and expectation that he would lead the once-great Premier League side back to its former standing as a club that competed for trophies with regularity. Fast forward six months from his appointment, and Klopp has the Reds three short extremely long hours from their first European final of what could be many finals together. Of course, they lost out to Manchester City on penalty kicks in the League Cup final at Wembley back in February.

The Reds’ last semifinal appearance in European competition? The 2009-10 Europa League, when they lost to that season’s eventual champions, Atletico Madrid (the side that triumphed over Clint Dempsey‘s Fulham in the most unlikely of cup runs). With a top-four place in the Premier League just about a mathematic impossibility now (Liverpool currently trail third- and fourth-place Manchester City and Arsenal by nine points with only 12 more up for grabs on the season), winning the Europa League is Klopp’s last crack at UEFA Champions League qualification next season, an major recruiting tool as he begins building his own squad in the summer transfer window.

Leading European scorers this season : VillarrealCedric Bakambu (9 goals); Roberto Soldado, Leo Baptistao, bruno (2 goals each) | LiverpoolPhilippe Coutinho, Divock Origi, Adam Lallana, James Milner (2 goals each)

Knockout-round paths to the semis: Villarreal — 2-1 (agg.) over Napoli; 2-0 (agg.) over Bayer Leverkusen; 6-3 (agg.) over Sparta Prague | Liverpool — 1-0 (agg.) over Augsburg; 3-1 (agg.) over Manchester United; 5-4 (agg.) over Borussia Dortmund

[ MORE: Europa League in-focus — Liverpool heads to Villarreal ]

Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Sevilla — 3:05 p.m. ET

Sevilla are two-time defending UEL champions, 180 minutes from appearing in their third consecutive final. No side has won any three consecutive European titles since Bayern Munich lifted the European Cup three straight years from 1974 to 1976. Of the four sides remaining in this year’s competition, their first-leg trip to Donetsk on Thursday is certainly the most daunting, give the distance traveled (2,300 miles) and the volatile atmosphere they’re bound to encounter.  The only other time these sides have met in official competition came in the 2006-07 UEL round of 16, when Sevilla advanced following a dramatic 3-2 second-leg victory (5-4 on aggregate), before going on to win that year’s edition of the competition.

Leading European scorers this season: Shakhtar — Alex Teixeira (no longer at Shakhtar), Eduardo Silva (3 goals); Facundo Ferreyra, Darijo Srna, Viktor Kovalenko (2 goals) | Sevilla — Kevin Gameiro (5 goals); Fernando Llorente (3 goals); Yevhen Konoplyanka, Ever Banega (2 goals)

Knockout-round paths to the semis: Shakhtar — 3-0 (agg.) over Schalke; 4-1 (agg.) over Anderlecht; 6-1 (agg.) over Braga | Sevilla — 3-1 (agg.) over Molde; 3-0 (agg.) over Basel; 3-3 (agg.) 5-4 PKs over Athletic Bilbao