Football UCL

The night belongs to Liverpool

Liverpool got what they deserved, eventually, but it was a fair time coming. And not just at the night.

A big first-leg performance from the Reds 💪#UCL | #LIVVIL

— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 27, 2022

Believe it or not, they haven’t won a Champions League knock-out tie at Anfield since that astonishing night against Barcelona in 2019, also at the semi-final stage.

This most certainly wasn’t a repeat of that. Villarreal are no Barcelona, and this was the first leg. Technically, it’s half time even if we all think we know where the tie is heading. Yet this victory was, in its own way, no less hard-fought.

When Liverpool got their breakthrough goals – two in two minutes – they had spent the best part of an hour throwing themselves against a yellow wall of resistance.

Villarreal defended superbly in the first-half and were threatening to do the same again. It took a sizable slab of luck for Liverpool to score and, as often happens, with tails up they then took further advantage.

If there was a downside to this win for Liverpool it was that two goals clear with 35 minutes remaining, they did not score more. Had Liverpool got to say, four, then they might have even been able to rest players for the return leg.

Sadio Mane is criminally underrated whereas, he has been proving a point since he arrived at Anfield. I still remember, how people laughed when the Reds signed Mane. But, some legends work silently and answer with deeds. #UCL

— Faisal Caesar (@faisalyorker1) April 28, 2022

Such matters are significant for a team chasing a quadruple, and needing to overhaul Manchester City. For all the respect shown to Villarreal, undeniably City have copped the tougher half of the draw in the Champions League knock-out stages.

The trip to Real Madrid threatens to take considerably more out of them than Liverpool’s second leg – as happened when City played Atletico Madrid in the previous round. The effects were still being felt when they met Liverpool at Wembley that Saturday and lost.

Jurgen Klopp may feel such a summary affords his team too little credit. That Villarreal have already dispatched Bayern Munich and Juventus and to think they could have been beaten by four is arrogant. Yet they are also seventh in La Liga and 26 points shy of Real Madrid. There is little evidence to suggest the two semi-finals are matched.

What is undeniable, however, is that whatever Villarreal’s status, Liverpool were made to work hard. Indeed, without a fortuitous deflection who knows how long it would have taken them to get the upper hand, if at all?

These are the nights 😍 YNWA

— Thiago Alcantara (@Thiago6) April 27, 2022

It is hard to feel sorry for Villarreal, mind when they offered so little. Unai Emery, their coach, did not look dissatisfied by the scoreline but they will have to be more expansive than this to stand the merest chance at home. They had a single attempt at goal last night.

As for the goal that did for them, it came after 53 minutes. Mo Salah fed the ball to Jordan Henderson – the man of the match, to these eyes – on the overlap, and his cross clipped Ecuadorian defender Pervis Estupinan on its way over. The ball flew over the head of goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, forcing a despairing late fingertip touch that did nothing to change its trajectory. It nestled in the far corner. Anfield erupted in joy, but also a relief.

Thiago’s pass accuracy in his last three games for Liverpool:

◉ 96% vs. Man Utd
◉ 98% vs. Everton
◉ 96% vs. Villarreal

The pass master. 👑#UCL

— Squawka (@Squawka) April 27, 2022

From the next attack, game over, and maybe the tie too. Villarreal don’t look to have three in them against a team of Liverpool’s calibre and that is what they now need. Even if they did score three it is hard to imagine Liverpool not getting at least one in reply. So the second was important. It was another fabulous intervention from Salah, defeating two defenders and sliding in Sadio Mane who slipped the ball past the advancing Rulli.

No surprise that the goals came after half-time, either. Villarreal, the epitome of organisation, have not conceded a single first-half goal in their six Champions League away matches this season. Seeing how events unfolded, there’s a reason for that.

Special nights them…Big Job to do next week!

— Jordan Henderson (@JHenderson) April 27, 2022

This was no slugfest like Real Madrid’s visit to Manchester. This was attack versus defence, Liverpool pressing high and relentless, Villarreal initially having none of it. They set up in banks designed to frustrate, and did. Not that they don’t play. This is a smart, technical team and they work their way out of trouble well. Neat little triangles form and risks are taken in possession.

Another sublime assist for the 🇪🇬 👑 tonight 😍

That’s now 14 for the season 🔥

— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 27, 2022

This is a well-coached, well-balanced team, their progress under Emery illustrating the mistake made at Arsenal valuing the opinion of whatever director of football was in vogue at the time, rather than an insightful and impressive coach.

The problem, of course, was that Villarreal committed so wholeheartedly to resistance that when they did get out there was no threat. In the 32nd minute, the ball was played to Samu Chukwueze who turned straight into Virgil van Dijk. It looked like a collision, albeit perhaps a knowing one from the Dutchman’s perspective, but referee Szymon Marciniak from Poland saw a blatant bodycheck and brandished a yellow card.

Does that count as a Villarreal attack, having progressed no further than 20 yards outside their own penalty area? If it doesn’t then Villarreal offered, literally, nothing early on.

And yet were impressive in their own way. They were defensively tight, intelligent, and cool. They took time out of the game at goal-kicks and other restarts but not in a way that was wholly obvious. Yes, the locals were unimpressed but Marciniak had plainly seen worse. He’s refereed Atletico Madrid, for heaven’s sake.

The stop-start nature of the encounter succeeded in breaking up Liverpool’s rhythm, though, so while they dominated and hit the woodwork, it never felt like one of those games in which one side were overwhelmed. Villarreal are used to seeing more of the ball, sure, but equally, they know how Liverpool play and what to expect. They handled what was thrown at them very well.

Allez, allez, allez 🎶

— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 27, 2022

The game was eight minutes old when Ibrahima Konate met an Andy Robertson corner from the left with a header that fell at the feet of Mane, inside the penalty area. Before he had a chance to shoot, however, it was swept away for a corner. And that set the pattern for the night. Just four minutes later Salah broke down the right and hit a cross that, again, Mane couldn’t quite get set to receive. It hit his head rather than being steered by it, and another chance went by.

Now to Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli who is one of those types who prefers the punch to the parry, or even a straightforward catch. Last night, he landed more punches than Dillian Whyte at Wembley on Saturday. Maybe it is to cover a weakness gathering cleanly. That was certainly how it looked when fumbling a Luis Diaz shot after 14 minutes. It wasn’t the strongest but he collected it only on the second attempt.

A Jordan Henderson volley from an acute angle after Thiago Alcantara’s crossfield pass hit the outside of a post on 22 minutes before Salah curled a shot over after Mane had held the ball up for him five minutes later.

Rulli later punched out a Diaz shot and, when Etienne Capoue conceded possession soon after, Mane had another effort deflected just wide. The pressure was unrelenting – a volleyed cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold was met by a volleyed shot from Salah, again wide of the target.

Finally, minutes before half-time, Thiago drilled one from 25 yards and hit a post. No doubt Klopp told his team that Villarreal could not survive another 45 minutes like that. And he was right. Liverpool scored twice and had another two disallowed, but no complaints. This should be enough.

The yellow submarine is sturdy but doesn’t look to possess the firepower to engage in more than a skirmish.

Note: Daily Mail UK