If there is to be a soft blow to Liverpool on what was yet another memorable European night at Anfield, it will be that their dominance was not reflected by a healthier margin.
On the face of it, it may seem like a ridiculous comment for a team now so close to the Champions League final in Paris that they’re practically docked in Calais, but Jurgen Klopp’s Reds’ control was so great that Villarreal should really be returning to Spain knowing their impossible dream is over. It really shouldn’t be that comfortable.
Nineteen shots and 73% possession don’t tell the full story of a game that at times – especially towards the end when Unai Emery’s men were desperate to hold onto the debts they already had – resembled an exhibition game of offense against defense. It really was so purposeful from a team that can rightfully claim to be Europe’s best at the moment.
A 2-0 win leaves the La Liga outfit to climb a mountain in El Madrigal at least next week. Klopp’s quadruple fighters are approaching a third – yes, third – Champions League final in five years. That’s the reality.
It’s now been 17 years since an unimaginable Liverpool hosted a first European Cup semi-final under his current Champions League guise. Back then, Rafa Benitez’s Reds were the plucky upstart who rose above their weight in the latter stages of football’s most star-studded competition.
Now under Klopp, their third semi-final since 2018 only reinforces the belief that they belong on this podium. They seem completely at ease with the magnitude of what’s potentially achievable and the understated build-up to the Villarreal visit is proof enough that the Reds see themselves as a true titan on the continent by 2022.
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In previous years, the silent countdown to this last-four draw might have caused some headaches for some, even if the opposition’s identity didn’t exactly scream ‘European giant’. But in many ways for Liverpool now, that the pre-match hype has been kept to a minimum is entirely beneficial to their overall goal of sweeping the board. They come for fate and maybe they just do it, you know.
For Klopp and his team, this was just another game. The biggest of the month? About, probably. Though you’ll have to weigh the merits of the eight others over a busy April before jumping to that definitive conclusion.
Klopp says he and his players are treating every game like a final at the moment, so it was no real shock that a meeting with the squad currently seventh in La Liga didn’t have the exaggeration normally reserved for football matches at the end of the competition. campaign.
And in the end there was to be no real deviation from the script, as a professional and dominant Liverpool sent their hard-working but ultimately limited visitors.
Three changes were made after Sunday’s Merseyside derby win, when Jordan Henderson, Ibrahima Konate and Luis Diaz all returned.
After sitting out an hour of the win against Everton, Diaz was the brightest of the show to begin with. His willingness to run into right-back Juan Foyth was evident from the first whistle and he forced goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli into an unconvincing save after jumping in from the left and unleashing a low drive after 13 minutes, before re-enacting him later at half-time tested in a similar fashion.
With Emery’s men more than happy to await their chances, Liverpool’s plan to overwhelm was obvious, even if it didn’t result in too many real chances in the opening half hour.
Mohamed Salah then had a couple of chances and shot into the Kop with a right footed volley from a superb cross by Trent Alexander-Arnold, moments after Giovani Lo Celso blocked a goal-bound shot.
Thiago Alcantara pinged one from about 100 yards towards the end of the half and was so unlucky that it hit the post with every opponent behind the ball.
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Villarreal’s determination was finally broken in less than 10 minutes of the second period when Henderson’s cross from Pervis Estupinan bounced off to Rulli on the wrong foot whose palm couldn’t prevent him from snuggling into the corner.
And two minutes later, Salah fed Mane for the all-important second. It was number 20 for the campaign and the 14th of his career in the knockout stage of the European Cup. How that central switch brought on by Diaz’s arrival has given him a mid-season spring in his step. The Senegalese star is certainly in his best form of the past two years right now.
Naby Keita and Diogo Jota were called off the bench for Mane and Henderson with 20 minutes to go and the signature bear hugs the goalscorers deserved from their manager spoke volumes about Klopp’s gratitude.
Joe Gomez and Divock Origi were then sent on to Alexander-Arnold and the excellent Diaz, while Klopp wanted to keep his feet fresh for that tight turnaround in Newcastle on Saturday afternoon.
This is a Liverpool team built in the image of their manager; one that is teak tough with an understanding of the foundations that hold his jovial, carefree outlook in place. It is a squad that has been painstakingly put together during Klopp’s reign and there is now a sense, at a sort of crystallizing moment, that the last six years have all been built up towards May 2022.
With one foot now in the Champions League final and with an FA Cup showpiece for the breathtaking Premier League race reaching the finish line, next month could be one to never, ever forget.
It will be a four week period that this Liverpool team can still prove as the best in its 130 years of existence. That status is really reachable from here.
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