There’s something about midweek European nights that bring out the very best in Liverpool FC.
The Reds booked a spot in the UEFA Champions League final for the third time in five years on Tuesday following a sensational comeback win against Villarreal in the second leg of their semifinal encounter.
Liverpool’s 3-2 victory in Spain will go down as one of the most memorable in the club’s long history after Jurgen Klopp’s side battled back from a disastrous opening 45 minutes that saw them go into halftime down by two goals.
Here’s what stood out about Tuesday’s game.
A MASTERFUL OPENING HALF BY VILLARREAL
Villarreal had a mountain to climb ahead of this encounter against Liverpool after suffering a 2-0 loss at Anfield last week. That meant it had to score three times without reply to wipe out the deficit in order to advance to their first Champions League final. It seemed a bridge too far for the Spaniards, as they had never managed to score more than once in any of their previous seven home games in the knockout stages of this competition. What’s more, they didn’t register a single shot on target in the first leg.
Buoyed by the heaving Estadio de la Cerámica, a cozy venue that seats 23,500 (roughly half of the city’s population), Villarreal established early on that this match would be different. The Spaniards were bold and brave in their approach right from the start, pressing Liverpool and forcing them onto the back foot. Their adventurous attacking play paid instant dividends when Etienne Capoue gambled to get ahead of Liverpool’s Andy Robertson to latch onto a ball whipped to the back post, before sending it across the box for teammate Boulaye Dia to knock home. At two minutes and 51 seconds, the Senegalese forward’s goal was the earliest that Liverpool had conceded in a Champions League match in over four years.
Villarreal continued to force the issue by pinning Liverpool back inside its zone and was rewarded with a second goal. Once again, Capoue managed to get the better of Robertson when he peeled away from the Liverpool fullback inside the penalty area and delivered a cross to the edge of the six-yard box for Francis Coquelin to score on a majestic header. It was the Frenchman’s first goal in 39 Champions League appearances. The hosts were in the ascendancy and went into the break having levelled the aggregate score at 2-2, and looked a sure bet to build upon their lead after the re-start.
LIVERPOOL STORMS BACK AFTER THE BREAK
Liverpool was run ragged by Villarreal through the opening 45 minutes. They saw their two-goal disadvantage disappear as they struggled to maintain sustained stretches of possession, and were unable to deal with the host’s aggressive pressing style. But the halftime break allowed the English side to catch its collective breath and regroup before going out for the second half. Whatever manager Jurgen Klopp said in his halftime speech worked because Liverpool looked like a completely different team for the final 45 minutes. Suddenly, the Reds controlled the game in midfield and began to ask questions of Villarreal’s defence.
Trent Alexander-Arnold's shot from distance deflected off a Villarreal defender and hit the crossbar in the 55th minute. That was just a warning because seven minutes later the Premier League club struck when Fabinho’s attempt from close range into the back of the net to make it a one-goal game. Although it was a powerful shot from the Brazilian, goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli was well-positioned to make the save, but let it slip between his legs.
Second-half substitute Luis Diaz managed to get in behind the defence and direct a header through Rulli’s legs to tie the game after 67 minutes. The momentum had swung in Liverpool’s favour, and you had a sense that Villarreal’s goose was cooked. The crucial blow came with 16 minutes left in regulation when Rulli, who was dreadful on the night, foolishly rushed outside of his penalty area, which led to a breakaway chance for Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, who scored into an empty net.
Díaz turned the tide for Liverpool
Liverpool barely threatened Villarreal in the opening half, with its only moment of danger coming off a Mohamed Salah break that resulted in teammate Diogo Jota breaking in on goal. But the Portuguese forward never looked entirely comfortable on the ball, and was caught by Villarreal defender Raul Albiol who broke up the scoring chance.
Jota was anonymous through the first 45 minutes, which led Jurgen Klopp to take him off at the start of the second half in favour of Luis Diaz. It proved an astute change, one that turned the game in the Reds’ favour. The Colombian’s pace and directness invigorated Liverpool, providing his team with dangerous attacking width down the left flank. With Diaz in full flight, the English club suddenly was far more purposeful going forward in attack.
Rather than bombing forward in attack, Villarreal had to contend with neutralizing the fleet-footed Diaz. It proved to be too much of a task. The Colombian ended up registering a game-high four shots in the second half, including his headed goal to tie things up, completed 90 per cent of his passes and had four touches inside the hosts’ penalty area.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.