Liverpool reached their third Champions League final in five years, but the return was a little more stressful than it seemed. What was supposed to be a procession after their 2-0 first leg win briefly threatened to become one of the most unexpected comebacks in European history when Villarreal took the 2-0 lead at half-time, but Liverpool’s very strong performance. improved in the second half resulted in a 3–2 win on the night for a 5–2 overall win. Now history may await you in Paris.
Jürgen Klopp will rightly take credit for inspiring the comeback, and it is Liverpool’s credit for having been so sloppy that he had the strength to regain his form, but few opposing goalkeepers will be as accommodating as Villarreal’s Gerónimo Rulli has been in helping visitors’ effort.
The fear for Liverpool last week was that, having dominated the first leg so completely, they had only won 2-0. With a third goal the feeling would have been that the draw was over, but a two-goal deficit leaves open the possibility of a comeback. But it still seemed like an extremely small possibility and that perhaps lulled Liverpool into a false sense of security. After all, how could a team that had been left behind for less than an hour in total this year contemplate losing to the seventh club in La Liga, especially considering that Arnaut Danjuma, their most dangerous player so fan in the knockout stage, was missing? ?
Liverpool have been relaxed since the first whistle, perhaps already thinking about the weekend match against Tottenham. After all, every Premier League match until the end of the season is effectively a final given the head-to-head nature of his fight with Manchester City. There had already been a cross that slipped dangerously through the area when, on 3 minutes, Pervis Estupiñán crossed to the far post and Etienne Capoue, evading Andy Robertson, deflected it back into the goal. Boulaye Dia, in place of the injured Danjuma, scored. It was well built and well executed, but it was disconcerting that Estupiñán had had so much room to measure the cross.
Suddenly, Liverpool’s passing and pressing were canceled, while Villarreal held the ball much better than last week. Naby Keïta, who had scored Liverpool’s only goal against Newcastle over the weekend, had a nightmare first half, his passing and decision making were wrong. It was his inability to get out at Estupiñán that led to the opening and his misplaced pass that led Giovanni Lo Celso to go one-on-one against Alisson after 38 minutes. He stabbed the ball into the goalkeeper’s chest and then fell on top of him, causing loud penalty appeals, even though referee Danny Makkelie was probably right to refuse them.
Before half-time, however, Villarreal leveled the tie overall, with Capoue drifting too easily away from Robertson and crossing at the far post, where Francis Coquelin overtook Trent Alexander-Arnold for a header. Both goals came from failures on the side of both full backs, which suggested a plan to exploit the defensive vulnerability of two players accustomed to attacking. But the malaise was deeper: the completion of Keïta’s passes in the first half was 65%, Fabinho’s 68% and Thiago’s 73%. Liverpool, unusually, simply couldn’t hold the ball.
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Given how consistent and ruthless Liverpool have been this season, it was a big surprise to see Liverpool so agitated, so out of pace. Luis Díaz came in for Diogo Jota at half-time and, more generally, Liverpool raised the bar, although it was suspected that Villarreal had withdrawn after drawing a tie to try to keep Liverpool at a safe distance. Alexander-Arnold had already had a deflected shot on the crossbar when Mohamed Salah made a pass to Fabinho in the space on the right side of the box. He had time to contemplate a cross, but in the end he punched a shot, straight on Rulli. The goalkeeper had looked wobbly in the first leg and was grossly at fault when the ball went straight through him.
The relief was palpable. Díaz, who had made a big difference, deflected a shot to the outside of the post, but then got the second header from Alexander-Arnold’s left cross in the 67th minute. Rulli, once again, could have done better, even though he was third in the final 12 minutes of which he was most guilty. He charged from his goal, allowing Sadio Mané to jump him about 40 yards before calmly rolling into an empty net. When Villarreal lost discipline, Capoue picked up a second yellow card and was sent off.
By then, however, the tie was long gone. Liverpool, having overcome a surprising swing, are in their third final of the season. The League Cup has already been won, the FA Cup is near and the Premier League title is in the balance. A head-to-head match against Manchester City or Real Madrid awaits you. Quadruple remains a distinct possibility.
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