UCL ACTION Villarreal vs Liverpool –Reds into Champions League final

 All day long torrential rain had sluiced through the tight streets in this tiny outpost of eastern Spain and in the evening Liverpool rode out another storm to reach the Champions League final.

For 45 minutes this was the night when the hunt for the quadruple almost caught up on them, when this Liverpool team appeared human after all and when maybe fighting on all fronts was proving too much.

But it is not for nothing that Jürgen Klopp labelled them the “mentality monsters” and they brilliantly drew on that extraordinary resilience to claim three second-half goals in a whirlwind 12-minute burst that overwhelmed Villarreal who finished with 10-men after Étienne Capoue followed his two assists with two yellow cards born of frustration.

Liverpool also have the irrepressible Luis Diaz who came on as a half-time substitute and undoubtedly turned the game against the so-called ‘Yellow Submarine’ who had shocked Juventus, stunned Bayern Munich and were threatening to do the same to Liverpool.

But they are made of stronger stuff and so Klopp, again brilliantly marshalling his replacements, has gloriously guided them to the final of this competition for the third time in five years.

It is a return to Paris on May 28, the city where the six-time winners claimed their third European Cup in 1981, and where they will of course face either Manchester City or Real Madrid – who they beat that night and lost to so painfully in 2018 – with profound resonance for both opponents.

Whoever they play it will be epic and it followed a thrilling comeback that means Liverpool have won all six away games in Europe this season, something that has not been done before, as they continued their relentless march. It is one defeat in 29 games in 2022 and that was in the second leg of the tie against Inter Milan which was already won. They go on and on. Can anyone stop the first English club to reach the final of the European Cup, the FA Cup and the League Cup in the same season?

Incredibly it briefly felt like Villarreal might although there was always the suspicion – after the worst opening half in years under Klopp – that not only would the Spaniards struggle to sustain their intensity but, surely, that Liverpool would improve. Even so, it took a powerful half-time talk from the manager and Diaz’s introduction to effect it. There was also the weak link: Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli who had been exposed in the first leg and was culpable here. It was as if he was shouting out his first name as he charged around.

Before that Liverpool had surrendered their 2-0 advantage. And it was a meek surrender. Klopp had claimed they might suffer and so it proved. “A 90 minutos de nuevro sueno” (“90 minutes from my dream”) read a banner behind the goal Villarreal were defending and within three minutes those dreams were electric. They scored.

Worryingly, in a sign of what was to come before the break, Liverpool were carved open with Capoue stealing in front of Andrew Robertson, who was caught out, to reach a cross and cut it back first time for Boulaye Dia to slam past a stranded Alisson.

It was the earliest Liverpool had conceded in a Champions League game for more than four years – and to do so in a semi-final away from home when the absolute instruction, the first command, was to quieten the opposition.

Dreams and nightmares. This was the start that Klopp will have hammered home to his players that they simply had to avoid. After the downpours, which had relented, Liverpool needed to gather themselves but could not. The scarves had twirled, the songs had been sung inside the Ceramica but even the most fervent of Villarreal fan did not expect this ferocity as they exploited the space behind both of Liverpool’s full-backs. Even Virgil van Dijk looked flustered.

Liverpool were not winning enough duels; their passing was not accurate enough and it was summed up when Naby Keïta played the ball straight to Gerard Moreno who turned and threaded it through to Giovani Lo Celso who attempted to go around Alisson with the goalkeeper clattering into him. Villarreal screamed for a penalty but their feverish demands were waved away by the Dutch referee Danny Makkelie, who felt the goalkeeper got a touch, although it looked like a let-off.

Fuelled by the sense of injustice Villarreal tore forward again with Capoue once more beating Robertson, this time to a cross-field pass, and he sent the ball back into the penalty area. Francis Coquelin just wanted it more than Trent Alexander-Arnold and rose high to power a header into the net. “Highway to Hell” blasted out on the PA and Liverpool were in purgatory.

It had to change. It really did. And once more Klopp got his changes right and what a difference Diaz made. Suddenly there was tenacity and purpose and Liverpool took over. After Alexander-Arnold’s deflected 30-yard shot bounced off the top of the cross-bar Fabinho started and ended the move that began it. He exchanged passes with Mohamed Salah, thought about crossing from the right-hand corner of the area but instead fired in a shot that ricocheted between Rulli’s legs and inside his near post.

Villarreal were reeling and Alexander-Arnold was quickly afforded the space to deliver a precise inswinging centre that was met by Diaz with a clever run and smartly guided header to beat Rulli who capped it all by then rushing out to try and get to Keïta’s through ball before Sadio Mané. Inevitably the forward was far too quick, whisking it away and taking his time before slotting the ball into the empty goal.

It meant Liverpool have scored 139 times in 57 games this season. Fifty seven games down and six to go. By the end the roar of the rain had long abated and the air was still apart from the celebrations of Liverpool’s fans, led by Klopp. In this unprecedented campaign their last game will be another final, a 10th European Cup final.

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