Liverpool 2 Villarreal 0: Reds put one foot in Champions League final


FROM the glorious unpredictability of the Etihad to the bleeding obvious at Anfield.

Liverpool virtually sealed their passage to a third Champions League Final in five years – and they will surely now be in Paris on May 28 to face either Manchester City or Real Madrid.


Jordan Henderson wheels away after watching his shot deflected inCredit: Reuters
Pervis Estupinan was unlucky to fire the ball over his own keeper for 1-0


Pervis Estupinan was unlucky to fire the ball over his own keeper for 1-0Credit: Reuters

There is a sense of destiny about Jurgen Klopp’s quadruple-chasers and a sense of inevitability for those who dread ‘The Unbearables’ taking a clean sweep of trophies.

City are surely the only side who can stop that – in the Premier League or in Europe – as this relentlessly brilliant Liverpool team would surely overpower Madrid’s stately side if they make it to the showpiece at the Stade de France next month.

This semi-final first-leg was a mismatch as one-sided as Tyson Fury’s defeat of Dillian Whyte – even if Klopp’s men had to play patience for 53 minutes before a fortunate own goal finally broke the stubborn resolve of Unai Emery’s underdogs.

Sadio Mane prodded a second soon after and the shot count ended up 19-1 in favour of the utterly-dominant Merseysiders.

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Villarreal’s entire starting line-up cost less than Virgil Van Dijk and the gulf in class was glaringly obvious. They were only marginally more ambitious than Everton had been during Sunday’s Merseyside derby.

Klopp was even able to rest Mane for the final 20 minutes as he prepares for Saturday’s trip to Newcastle, with Liverpool needing only to claw back a point to overhaul Pep Guardiola’s champions in the title run-in.

This was a colourful occasion – red pyrotechnics as the team coach arrived, Spain’s Yellow Submarine in the hometown of The Beatles and sweet silver songs from the Scouse larks on The Kop.

Nobody was predicting a repeat of the previous night’s thriller in Manchester – especially with Villarreal so staunch in defence and so lacking in attacking threat.

Liverpool players celebrate Sadio Mane's second goal that could prove crucial


Liverpool players celebrate Sadio Mane’s second goal that could prove crucialCredit: Reuters


But for all the talk of Villarreal’s English ‘rejects’ – including three players not wanted by Tottenham in their starting line-up – they had been building up a proper European heritage of their own.

Villarreal had defeated Manchester United in last season’s Europa League Final, as well as Juventus and Bayern Munich to arrive at Anfield.

They are the kind of over-achieving smalltown club which made Liverpool’s American owners and their cronies wet their pants and attempt a Super League breakaway last year.

And Emery has four Europa League trophies to his name including one final triumph over Klopp’s Liverpool back in 2016.

Liverpool have won 12 straight Premier League home games – but had actually not won at Anfield in the Champions League knock-out stages since their famous comeback against Barcelona in the 2019 semi-final.

That winless run of four games over three seasons never looked likely to be stretched in this one, however.

Mane squandered two early chances – first the Senegalese failed to get a shot away after Ibrahima Konate won a header from a corner and then, unmarked six yards out, he made a hash of a header from a Mo Salah cross.

Liverpool pressed high like a pack of hungry dogs, rattling their opponents. And while Villarreal keeper Geronimo Rulli has a christian name which suggests a certain urgency, he was taking an age to take each goal-kick, enraging the locals.

A Jordan Henderson cross-shot clattered the near post, then Salah cut in and swerved a shot just over the bar.

The dangerous Luis Diaz had a shot pushed out by Rulli and Villarreal’s canny defensive veteran Raul Albiol made a critical block from a Salah centre and Mane had a shot deflected wide.

As the first half ebbed away, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s artful volleyed cross was steered over the bar by Salah and then Thiago Alcantara clattered the top of the post with a powerful long-ranger.

Liverpool had enjoyed two-thirds of possession and out-shot the Spaniards 12-1 but they could not find a way through before half-time.

Van Dijk was booked for a body-check on Samuel Chukwueze when Emery’s men attempted a rare break but this was largely a prolonged attack versus defence drill.

After the interval, Pervis Estupinan dragged back Salah on the edge of the box but Albiol – a defender in love with his art – powered another header away.

Fabinho had the ball in the net but his effort was ruled out because of an offside flag against Van Dijk and Diaz fluffed a great headed chance from an Alexander-Arnold centre.

But when the breakthrough arrived, it was freakish.

A crossfield move ended with Henderson crossing from the right but a major deflection off Estupinan foxed Rulli, who could only help it into his own net at full stretch.

The second arrived just two minutes later, Salah nutmegging Pau Torres with the through-ball and Mane poking past Rulli, narrowly surviving a tight VAR check for offside.

Andy Robertson netted soon after but his effort was scrubbed out by an offside flag.

But Liverpool continued to rain down shots on the Villarreal goal and the only shock was that they did put the tie beyond any shadow of a doubt.


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