Liverpool put one foot in Champions League final with dominant win over Villarreal

Liverpool 2-0 Villarreal: Jordan Henderson’s deflected cross and Sadio Mane’s neat finish give the Reds a comfortbale led to defend in Spain next week

Miguel Delaney
at Anfield
Wednesday 27 April 2022 22:52
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<p>Liverpool convincingly beat Villarreal 2-0 in the first leg of their semi-final </p>

Liverpool convincingly beat Villarreal 2-0 in the first leg of their semi-final

Liverpool are on the brink of a 10th appearance at the peak of European football, but only after a 2-0 win that felt very far from the pinnacle of the game. It was certainly so far removed from the thrilling chaos of the previous night at Manchester City.

There were so many passages where this felt much less a Champions League semi-final, and more a routine Premier League win over someone like Watford. That was down to more than the identity of some of Villarreal’s players, such as Etienne Capoue and Pervis Estupinan.

It should be stressed that this is more a reflection of the economic disparity within European football, that is now such a live issue, rather than any disrespect towards Unai Emery’s team. They have done superbly to get this far, and still have some small chance, but it still felt like they came up against the limits of what is possible with this sort of football.

There were moments when it was hard not to wonder how exactly Bayern Munich had gone out. Perhaps they were more negatively affected by the one element of tension affecting this game. That was the possibility of one of the best sides in the world wasting such a chance to get into the Champions League final.

This seemed like it temporarily got to Liverpool, until they just took proper hold of the game. It soon began to look like what it was: possibly the best side in the world against the seventh best in Spain, but the gaps between clubs of such statuses have never been as great as they are now.

The truth was much of this match felt like it was from another era, whatever about the other semi-final.

More than even Champions League ties of the past, this had the feel of the 2002 World Cup. That was both in terms of Emery’s “controlled” football, and the state of play. As with Villarreal’s run, that 2002 tournament became famous for its shocks, with the biggest names going out early on to real upstarts. The sensation of the results soon gave way to the reality of the latter-stage fixtures. They were mismatches in terms of resources, and style.

Again, this is not to disrespect Emery’s work – but you can respect something while not especially enjoying it. The Basque has clearly done an excellent job, but it’s equally fair to ask whether this approach ran up against its own limits as much as a far superior team.

Sadio Mane scored Liverpool’s second goal

Basically, when you concede, you haven’t got much else.

Villarreal’s approach was entirely, and understandably, dependent on just stopping Liverpool playing. It worked for a time.

Constantly facing a phalanx of at least seven men around Geronimo Rulli’s box, Klopp’s side were starting to get frustrated. It was a little like Everton on Sunday. Any edge within the opposition soon transmitted to the Anfield crowd, and their players, because they were toiling to find any kind of breakthrough.

A defence led by the excellent Pau Torres were constantly doing enough to just get a block in the way, or a body. When Salah did put Mane through early in the first half, it was as if he seemed so surprised at the space that he just let the ball bounce off his head. Everything else was so much harder fought for.

By the end of the half, Thiago was attempting a speculative drive from distance, that did cannon off the frame of the goal in spectacular fashion.

It would usually have been said at that point Liverpool were running out of ideas, but the reality was Villarreal’s one idea was running out of road.

The counter-intuitive risk to safety-first football is double-fold, especially in the modern game.

There is first of all the fact that you are giving one of the best attacks in history free rein to just come at you. Law of averages, as happened with Everton, dictates they will eventually make use of that.

Jordan Henderson’s cross deflected in for Liverpool’s first

There is then a second equation. The ball is going to spend an awful lot of time around your box, with a lot of bodies in there. That is going to bring bounces and ricochets that you can’t control.

That’s exactly what happened.

On 53 minutes, Jordan Henderson attempted to cross the ball into that congested area, only for the ball to wickedly ricochet off Estupinan’s foot and over Rulli. The goalkeeper had been spilling a few balls in the first half, and could only flap at this.

There was relief around Anfield but also release. As if freed from the danger that they might squander this huge chance for a 10th final, Liverpool began to create far more opportunities in the match itself. You could feel it around the stadium. You could see it.

Within two minutes, Salah was again supplying Mane, who stabbed the ball under Rulli.

Liverpool ended up having two goals ruled out for offside, and there is of course the possibility they rue not winning by more.

Right now, though, it feels a very remote possibility. To pull off the improbable, Villarreal are going to have to push themselves to their very limits. That isn't really what Emery's football is about.

This 2-0 win didn't really feel like what the modern Champions League has been about.

That perhaps says as much about its economics, as Emery's football.

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