Liverpool have taken a big step towards securing a place in the Champions League final by beating Villarreal 2-0 in the first leg of the semifinal on Wednesday at Anfield, courtesy of an own-goal from Pervis Estupinan and a composed finish by Sadio Mane.
On the previous evening, Manchester City triumphed over Real Madrid at the Etihad in the other semi by 4-3, and the name of the other finalist will surely be decided at the Santiago Bernabeu next week.
Villarreal boss Unai Emery obviously felt his team would be no match for Liverpool in an open contest, so it was undoubtedly prudent to set up a defensive approach at Anfield. Arranged in two banks of four, glued together with no space in between and with two forwards playing mostly around 30 yards from their own goal, the visitors successfully resisted wave after wave of attack.
But the obvious consequence was that the Liverpool defence remained untroubled throughout. Villarreal either weren’t able to cause any damage whatsoever at the other end of the pitch, or they weren’t even interested in trying very hard. The home side dominated the match completely, and the only question regarding the outcome was whether Villarreal would keep their net from being hit, or not. And in such contests, it often happens that one lapse of concentration or a moment of bad luck brings the whole plan down.
A stable and confident goalkeeper is one of the first requirements of a strong defensive approach, but Geronimo Rulli proved terribly insecure from the start. He spilt a couple of long-range efforts in the first half, with Luis Diaz particularly in the mood to test his abilities from outside the box, and he seemed to have lost faith in his catching skills after that, choosing to
punch the ball away instead whenever possible.
It was therefore no real surprise when he failed to stop a deflected cross, hit by Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and deflected off Estupinan, from hitting the net in the 53rd minute. The goal forced Villarreal to try and shift the balance the other way, which proved to have been exactly what Liverpool were waiting for. As soon as the visitors started thinking about pushing for an equalizer, the home side struck again as Mohamed Salah threaded a pass into the box for Sadio Mane to slot past Rulli. The two goals were two minutes apart, and it may well prove that whole semifinal tie was settled within those two minutes.
Magnificent is probably a suitable word to describe the job Klopp has done at Liverpool since arriving in October 2015. It’s certainly up for debate which of the successes achieved in that time is the greatest, but this season, however it ends, will surely be right up there. The Reds are still in the chase for the quadruple which has never been won by an English club yet, and what’s more, their chances of actually winning it become slightly more realistic with each passing day.
As for the Champions League, Villarreal have been the surprise of the season so far, having knocked out Juventus and Bayern Munich to get where they are. Emery’s team have proven that their strong defence can be a very efficient weapon against top teams. But that is exactly the reason why Liverpool should be praised after this match.
Klopp’s players were patient, never losing their grip on the game or the sight of Rulli’s goal. By the final whistle, their possession percentage stood at 74%, and their total of 19 shots (five on target) completely put to shame Villarreal’s one which went wide. They kept their belief the wall of defence would eventually be broken – until it was.
If one Liverpool player needed to be put ahead of the rest, most would probably name Thiago Alcantara as his composure and distribution had a great effect on their control of the match. However, there was simply no weak link in Klopp’s team.
Manchester City and Real Madrid could each be fancying their chances of reaching to the final, but both Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti will surely be looking at Liverpool at this point, thinking about what they could possibly do to stop them if they meet on May 28th in Saint-Denis.
Villarreal certainly shouldn’t be completely dismissed just yet and it seems Liverpool haven’t done so, but given everything we’ve seen from Spanish side against Bayern and in this match, it’s hard to imagine them beating Liverpool by more than one goal at the Ceramica next week, which is what they must do to stand a chance of going through.
Villarreal’s chances will perhaps be boosted by striker Gerard Moreno returning to action after missing the first leg through a severe hamstring strain, but even with the 30-year-old in their ranks, their ability to wrestle on-pitch control from Liverpool remains questionable. It would be nothing short of a miracle if they do.
All in all, after this match, Liverpool are the likeliest team among the semifinalists to book a ticket to Saint-Denis.
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