Liverpool avoided setback against Villarreal but quest for Champions League title still not done
5: 46 PM ET
Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC
LIVERPOOL, England — Don’t be fooled by the narrow margin of the scoreline. Liverpool‘s 2-0 victory over Villarreal at Anfield was the most one-sided semifinal you are likely to see and could and should have been so much more for the six-time European champions. But 2-0 may be enough to keep Liverpool’s dream alive of winning four major trophies within one season. Unai Emery’s team still has 90 minutes in next Tuesday’s second leg to salvage this tie and reach the Champions League final in Paris on May 28, but it would go against all logic and statistical evidence to believe that Liverpool will succumb to what seems an unthinkable Villarreal fightback.
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“It’s 2-0 at half-time [in the tie],” Jurgen Klopp said. This is the best example of a score that requires you to be alert. We will have to be 100 percent in the right mood and play the second leg in exactly the same way we played the first. We are not done, even though the score is good. “
This competition has certainly given us plenty of remarkable second legs in recent years, including Liverpool overturning a 3-0 deficit against Barcelona to win 4-0 in the return fixture. If Villarreal are able to eliminate Klopp’s team at Estadio de la Ceramica, it will be in the same league of shocks as that unforgettable night at Anfield in May 2019. But Villarreal, last year’s Europa League winners, failed to convert their dominance into a more evocative margin. The “Yellow Submarine” have ended the European ambitions of Arsenal, Manchester United, Juventus and Bayern Munich over the past 12 months, so Liverpool will not take them lightly, but the reason Klopp’s side was so in command during the first leg was precisely because Liverpool did not underestimate Villarreal.
Juventus and Bayern both failed to recognise the danger of Villarreal on the counterattack and paid a heavy price, but Liverpool made no such mistake and their defensive concentration was as important as their attacking flair. By the end of the game, Liverpool had registered 20 attempts on goal compared to Villarreal’s one. According to official UEFA statistics, Liverpool had 93 attacks (Villarreal managed just 15) and completed 645 passes as opposed to 182 by Emery’s team. In terms of possession, Liverpool enjoyed 68% over the 90 minutes. The fact that they won only 2 to 1 was due to missed chances and Villarreal’s organisational and defensive discipline. The Spanish team did a great job in the first half defusing the atmosphere and slowing down the game. They also stopped time wasting and denied Liverpool the space to play at their normal pace. Villarreal’s tactics frustrated the home team and quietened the crowd, which was a remarkable feat at Anfield on a Champions League evening. However, there was always a feeling that Liverpool would continue to surge forward.
It was all about game management and patience, something that was made easier by the presence of Thiago Alcantara in the Liverpool midfield, with the former Barcelona and Bayern player ensuring that nobody in a red shirt panicked at Villarreal’s attempts to suffocate the game. But once Fabinho had a goal ruled out for offside on 50 minutes, it was clear that Liverpool were ready to race through the gears in pursuit of an opening goal, which came three minutes later when Jordan Henderson‘s cross beat goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli after being deflected goalwards by Pervis Estupinan.
The goal brought relief and greater urgency, and Sadio Mane doubled Liverpool’s lead two minutes later when he poked the ball underneath Rulli after being set free by Mohamed Salah. In a flash, Villarreal was in a tie and had to hold on to their hands. Andy Robertson then had a goal ruled out for offside and Virgil van Dijk and Luis Diaz both went close to adding to the scoring, but Villarreal held out to lose by only a two-goal margin.
This Liverpool team is too good to surrender a two-goal advantage in a Champions League semifinal, even though it conceded a total of seven goals in Liverpool’s past two semifinal away ties under Klopp, in 2018 and 2019. While Premier League rivals Manchester City must defend a one-goal lead against Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu next Wednesday following their 4-3 first-leg win, Liverpool’s challenge is nothing more than routine.
Klopp will remind his players of that night against Barcelona, when nobody gave Liverpool a chance, and urge them to be wary of Villarreal achieving their own miraculous comeback.
“I saw Villarreal and was impressed by their organization. It was a lesson that I learned,” Klopp stated. “But we must not forget that we’re also good. It will be hard, but it is possible to ignore a 2-0 lead and start over at 0-0. Emery and Villarreal have a sense of defiance and the belief that they can pull off a surprise.
“[Liverpool] are going to suffer more than tonight in Villarreal,” Emery said after this game. This might be true, but Liverpool and their fans can make plans to travel to Paris.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.