Liverpool they have reached their third Champions League final in five years, but the second leg was far more nerve-wracking than it seemed. What was supposed to be a procession after a 2-0 win in the first leg briefly threatened to turn into one of the most unexpected comebacks in European history as Villarreal won 2-0 at half time, but a much better performance from Liverpool in the first leg. The second half brought a 3-2 win on the night for a 5-2 aggregate victory. Now history can wait in Paris.
Jürgen Klopp will rightly take credit for inspiring the comeback, and Liverpool’s credit is that they were so careless they had the fortitude to rediscover their form, but few opposing goalkeepers will be as accommodating as Villarreal’s Geronimo Rulli was to help. to the team. visitor effort.
Liverpool’s fear last week was that, having so utterly dominated the first leg, they had only won 2-0. With a third goal, the feeling would have been that the tie was over, but a two-goal deficit left open the possibility of a comeback. But it still seemed like an extremely slim chance and that, perhaps, lulled Liverpool into a false sense of security. After all, how could a team that had been behind by less than an hour in total this year contemplate losing to the club seventh in La Liga, particularly given that Arnaut Danjuma, their most dangerous and fanatical player in the round of 16, was missing? final?
Liverpool seemed relaxed from the opening whistle, perhaps already thinking about the weekend’s game against Tottenham. After all, every Premier League match until the end of the season is effectively a final given the nature of their feud with Manchester City. There was already a cross that went dangerously wide in the area when, in the 3rd minute, Pervis Estupiñán crossed to the far post and Etienne Capoue, dodging Andy Robertson, finished it off wide. Boulaye Dia, substituting for the injured Danjuma, scored. He was well built and well executed, but it was disconcerting that Estupiñán had been given so much room to measure the cross.
Suddenly Liverpool’s passing and pressure died down, 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 nightmarish first half, with poor passing and decision-making. It was his lack of lead to Estupiñán that led to the opening goal and his deflected pass that led Giovanni Lo Celso to face Alisson one-on-one in the 38th minute. He stabbed the ball into the goalkeeper’s chest and then fell on him, prompting vociferous penalty appeals, though referee Danny Makkelie was probably right to dismiss them.
Before half-time, however, Villarreal leveled the tie on aggregate, with Capoue escaping Robertson too easily and crossing to the back post, where Francis Coquelin moved in front of Trent Alexander-Arnold to head in, surprisingly the seventh successive conversion. of Villarreal from a shot on goal in the competition. Both of Tuesday’s goals came from mistakes by both full-backs, suggesting a plan to exploit the defensive vulnerability of two players accustomed to playing with the front foot. But the discomfort went deeper than that: Keïta’s completion in the first half was 65%, Fabinho’s 68% and Thiago’s 73%. Liverpool, unusually, simply couldn’t keep the ball.
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Given how consistent, how ruthless Liverpool had seemed this season, it was a huge surprise to see Liverpool so nervous, so out of rhythm. Luis Diaz came on for Diogo Jota at half-time and, more generally, Liverpool raised the level, although there was a suspicion that, having drawn, Villarreal had withdrawn to try and keep Liverpool at arm’s length. Alexander-Arnold had already had a shot deflected off the crossbar when Mohamed Salah passed Fabinho into space on the right side of the box. He had time to contemplate a cross, but in the end he drilled a shot, straight at Rulli. The goalkeeper looked shaky in the first leg and made a big foul when the ball went straight through him.
The relief was palpable. Diaz, who had made a big difference, had a shot just wide of the post but then got the second, heading in a left-footed cross from Alexander-Arnold in the 67th minute. Rulli, again, could have done better, although he was the third in the final stretch of 12 minutes the one who was most to blame. He charged from his goal, allowing Sadio Mané to pass him some 40 meters before calmly rolling into an empty net. Given Villarreal’s lack of discipline, Capoue picked up the second yellow card and was sent off.
By then, however, the tie was long gone. Liverpool, having overcome a surprising wobble, are through to their third final of the season. The League Cup is already won, the FA Cup is next, and the Premier League title is at stake. A face-to-face meeting awaits him against Manchester City or Real Madrid. Quadruple is still a distinct possibility.
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