Giovani Lo Celso transformed at Villarreal as Antonio Conte proved right after Tottenham struggle

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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Of all the supposed Premier League rejects, misfits and cast-offs who make up Unai Emery's Villarreal squad against Liverpool tonight, none feel as important to their hopes of another Champions League upset as Tottenham loanee Giovani Lo Celso.

Lo Celso has added guile and grit to Emery's midfield and was outstanding as Villarreal eliminated first Juventus then Bayern Munich in the knockouts.

Lo Celso was man of the match in the 1-0 win over Bayern in the quarter-final first leg, and pivotal again in the subsequent 1-1 draw in Germany, playing both games with a fizzing intensity which the Bundesliga giants found difficult to contain.

He got the pre-assist for both the Yellow Submarine's goals across the tie. The performances could scarcely have been more contrasting to Lo Celso's limp efforts in his final months at Spurs, when the simplest of tasks looked beyond him and supporters grew increasingly exasperated with his inability to impact matches.

The Argentine's turnaround since returning to Spain on January deadline day has not come entirely out of the blue, however, but rather feels like the result of a talented player being back in an environment which suits him.

Giovani Lo Celso has revitalised his career since leaving Tottenham for Villarreal on a loan deal in January (AFP via Getty Images)
Giovani Lo Celso has revitalised his career since leaving Tottenham for Villarreal on a loan deal in January (AFP via Getty Images)

This is certainly the view of Spurs boss Antonio Conte, who regards the midfielder as gifted but ill-suited to the intensity and physicality of English football and judged that he needed to be playing regularly back on the continent.

Conte has a point. Lo Celso enjoys dribbling and likes to release the ball late, when he has drawn in an opponent and space has opened up ahead, making him susceptible to challenges. His pass in the build-up to Samuel Chukwueze's decisive goal at Bayern was a good example.

In LaLiga and the Champions League, Lo Celso is afforded more time and is said to feel more protected, and therefore more comfortable, than in English football.

Before joining Spurs he had practically never been injured but two-and-a-half years of hard knocks in England led to a succession of niggles and more serious complaints, which sapped his confidence and disrupted his rhythm.

His commitment to playing for his country, even while Argentina was on the UK's "red list" of travel destinations, further contributed to his stop-start season at Spurs and frustrated the club, particularly given the view that Lo Celso was the ringleader in September, when he, Cristian Romero and Davinson Sanchez reported for international duty against the club's wishes and subsequently spent 10 days training in Croatia to avoid a spell in quarantine.

That said, Conte's predecessors Jose Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino admired Lo Celso, and he looked more than capable of playing in England during Project Restart, when he was the heartbeat of Mourinho's improving Tottenham side.

While many at Spurs found Lo Celso stand-offish, Mourinho liked his quiet determination and said in July 2020 he would not swap him for "any player".

Last season, injuries and a loss of form largely reduced Lo Celso to the role of alternate for Tanguy Ndombele, who could rarely maintain his intensity for longer than an hour, and Mourinho's seeming lack of trust in him continued under Conte.

Lo Celso spent last season at Spurs as an alternate for the disappointing Tanguy Ndombele (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
Lo Celso spent last season at Spurs as an alternate for the disappointing Tanguy Ndombele (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

By contrast, Emery, who managed Lo Celso at Paris Saint-Germain, has placed enormous faith in the 26-year-old, and regards him as a tactically intelligent player who can carry out specific jobs. Lo Celso has quickly become the leader of Villarreal's defensive press, and he is expected to play off the right in tonight's semi-final first leg to deal with the threat of left-back Andy Robertson, just as he did so successfully against Bayern.

While Lo Celso's lack of a defined position was a problem at Spurs, Emery enjoys his versatility and will move him around during matches to suit the situation.

There is also a view that Lo Celso may prefer being a bigger fish in a smaller pond, having struggled at PSG and Spurs but shone for Real Betis and Villarreal, who are seventh in LaLiga and will need to win the Champions League to return to the competition next season.

Villarreal are desperate to keep Lo Celso but his loan deal does not include an obligation to buy at the end of the season, and Spurs want to recoup as much of the £55million fee they paid Betis as possible. Villarreal have never spent more than £21m on a player and are likely to push for another loan deal.

Given Lo Celso’s impact for Villarreal, Spurs could find he has no shortage of suitors in the summer

One intriguing hypothetical would be the return of Pochettino from PSG to north London in a job swap with Conte, which has been mooted this week. Lo Celso was signed on Pochettino's watch and he may be more open to keeping his compatriot than Conte.

Given Lo Celso's impact for Villarreal, Spurs could find he has no shortage of suitors in the summer, however, particularly if he impresses again at Anfield tonight.

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