All eyes on Chukwueze as Liverpool host Villarreal
Nigeria’s Samuel Chukwueze is finally flying again with Spanish club, Villarreal, after an injury-hit spell, and is looking to cause another upset after downing one of Europe’s elite, reports BBC.
Full of pace, skill and possessing a majestic left foot, the winger is the latest African talent to catch the eye in the Champions League.
Earlier this month the 22-year-old scored a late winner as Villarreal stunned Bayern Munich 2-1 on aggregate to reach the semi-finals of the continent’s premier club competition for the first time in 16 years.
Now he has his sights set on another member of the elite, as the Yellow Submarine face six-time European champions, Liverpool, in the semifinals.
“We know all about Liverpool and they are expected to win, so the pressure is on them,” Chukwueze told BBC Sport Africa before today’s first leg.
“We have a squad and manager good enough to compete against any team in the world. Because of the way Liverpool plays some people have already made their own predictions but that is normal in football.
“We have a job to do and we are not going to Liverpool to lose. Why not aim for the best result over there? And that is what we hope to do.”
Chukwueze, who almost joined Arsenal in 2016, is keen to relive the feelings he experienced in the win over Bayern in Germany, which he describes as “an unforgettable moment for my career.”
“I came on as a late substitute and scored a winner that I will never forget in my life,” he explained.
“You honestly have no idea how much it meant to the players, the club, our fans and the city.
“Everything happened so fast. My teammates kept screaming ‘Samu!’ and I couldn’t process it that very moment. And honestly, I couldn’t hold myself. I looked across to our fans and once I saw them with tears of joy, I completely understood the impact of that goal.
“I hope to write more important chapters in my career with Villarreal. I have more games to play, and personal glory is not the target.”
The Reds may be fancied to reach the final, but Villarreal has showcased a real pedigree in cup competitions under manager Unai Emery.
Chukwueze, meanwhile, is entitled to have a bold attitude, considering all he has had to come through over the past 12 months.
It was at the semifinal stage last season that the Nigerian’s season came to an abrupt end, also against English opposition but that time in the Europa League.
Villarreal were underdogs ahead of their meeting with Arsenal, but in the end, Emery got the better of his former employers to advance to the final.
Chukwueze played his part, assisting a goal in the 2-1 home leg win, before being forced off with a hamstring injury half an hour into the return leg in London.
He would not play again for five months, missing the final win over Manchester United on penalties and undergoing surgery for the second time in three months at the end of May.
All of that disruption was difficult for the youngster to manage, both physically and mentally.
“Coming back, getting injured, doing two surgeries in a season is crazy and tough,” he said. “When you come back from an injury and you stay out for three months, go back again and do another surgery, it is so tiring and will weaken your mentality.
“If you’re not strong in the head, it’s going to weigh you down. Sometimes you get scared. Whenever you remember, you don’t want to take some risks again.”
Chukwueze credits overcoming that hurdle to the fraternal atmosphere at the club, as well as the personal touch Emery has brought to his recovery.
With the worst now past, he can once again focus on his development and what the future holds.
“Villarreal is just like a family to me,” Chukwueze said. “When someone sees potential in you, they will want you to grow more.
“My game has improved because of the surgery and the coach is doing an amazing job for me. I think what else is remaining is just to score goals, and Emery is doing a very nice job on finishing. Finishing is the only thing that is remaining [to improve] in my football.”
If he finds that touch ahead of the matches against Liverpool, then Villarreal’s Champions League fairy tale may, improbably, have another chapter.