Liverpool Maintained Their Relentless Form Against The Conquerors Of Bayern In Their Champions League Semi-Final First Leg.
Liverpool strike twice in two second-half minutes,
Henderson’s cross is deflected in by Estupinan,
Mane beats tight offside call to double lead.
Once again the phenomenal force of nature that is Liverpool showed that it can obliterate even the most formidable – and uncompromising – of obstacles. So much has been made of Villarreal’s defensive capabilities and yet the ‘yellow wall’ was blown away in 133 exhilarating seconds as Liverpool took a grip on this Champions League semi-final.
History has shown, certain recent history in this competition, that even the most daunting of first-leg advantages can be overturned but it would be a seismic shock if Liverpool were to surrender this lead in Spain next Tuesday. Can Villarreal really hope to score three times against Liverpool without reply?
Should Liverpool prevail it will be a third Champions League final in five years which provides yet more compelling evidence of their dominance. And, yes, that unprecedented ‘quadruple’ would still be on as well in what could turn out to be the most incredible ever campaign for Jürgen Klopp and this remarkable group of players. Such is their power, in every aspect, that nothing can be ruled out.
For Unai Emery it was an unhappy return to England for the former Arsenal manager who has restored his reputation, enhanced it even, with Villarreal. But for the ultimate cup specialist this tie now represents the ultimate test. Emery was missing his main attacking weapon, the injured Gerard Moreno, but was never in this game. It was emphatically, undoubtedly one-sided.
There were whistles around Anfield with the perception that Villarreal were time-wasting. With less than four minutes played. As expected they were disciplined, organised and certainly, also, worldly-wise (to put it kindly). This was a team that knew all about game-management and all that it brought.
Liverpool lost the toss and were asked to attack the Kop and did just that. There was a compelling force to them as, in wave after wave, they went after Villarreal as they really had to. The early exchanges heavily involved Sadio Mane with Ibrahima Konate’s header from a corner bouncing off his shin inside the six-yard box and then a header of his own, from Mohamed Salah’s clever cross, directed wide. Both were chances.
But Villarreal were unflappable. Under Emery they have lost just one of 12 away games in Europe and that was in injury time at Old Trafford last September and despite the energy and belief naturally swirling around the stadium and the overwhelming strength of their opponents they stuck to their predictable plan.
The Spanish side are a band of brothers, studded full of Premier League misfits with the Tottenham Hotspur four, Francis Coquelin once of Arsenal, Bournemouth’s Arnaut Danjuma, Dani Parejo who was at Queen’s Park Rangers and former Leicester City midfielder Vicente Iborra.
But last season’s Europa League winners have eliminated Juventus and Bayern Munich in this cup run and Liverpool were acutely aware of the danger and knew they had to maintain the tempo to break them down and test the apparent nervousness of goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli who spilled Luis Diaz’s shot but recovered before Salah could pounce. When Rulli was again unconvincing from another effort from Diaz it encouraged them even more.
The pace was lifted further, and it had to be to discomfort this most obdurate of opponents, with Liverpool swarming around Villarreal as Etienne Capoue ran into danger. The ball was propelled back to Mane whose shot was deflected narrowly wide. Another Villarreal defender got in the way as Salah shaped to shoot, with the ball spinning over. Finally a clearer chance fell to Salah, from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s volleyed cut-back, but he sent it over.
So Villarreal tried to break up the play. Pau Torres went down ‘injured’, a few ‘cute’ free-kicks were won and the first signs of frustration began to emanate from the stands although they were immediately drowned out when Thiago Alcantara unleashed powerfully from 25 yards with his shot cannoning off the post. It was a stunning strike but there were a smattering of boos, aimed at Villarreal’s spoiling tactics.
Their approach meant that Villarreal maintained their record of not conceding a goal in the first-half of any of their six Champions League away matches this season but their weakness was clear: the goalkeeper. And so Liverpool finally capitalised when Rulli failed to adjust as Jordan Henderson’s cross from the right, after he overlapped Salah, deflected off Pervis Estupian. All Rulli could do was palm the ball high into his own net.
Anfield erupted with Henderson wheeling away in celebration and Villarreal were unnerved and undone again soon after as Salah, for once, was allowed to turn on the edge of the penalty area as Torres backed off and thread a pass through to Mane who held his run to stay onside and stab the ball beyond the onrushing Rulli.
This time “Allez, allez, allez,” rang around Anfield. All of Villarreal’s determined defending was undone in the kind of whirlwind double that only a brutally relentless team like Liverpool can effect.
Rulli struggled again to repel a piledriver from Virgil Van Dijk with Diaz’s curling effort deflected wide as the Colombian later dragged another effort across goal. Could Liverpool get a third which would surely end any lingering doubt? Klopp turned to his bench as he tried to kill the tie. That they did not manage to do it will have brought only a tinge of frustration. Surely they have already done enough to reach yet another European Cup final. The roar at the end certainly suggested that.
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