Liverpool do what everyone expected – but in the most unexpected way.
The club cruised to a 10th Champions League final, and a second in Paris, having overcome genuine turbulence. That’s perhaps what going for a quadruple requires. It’s an achievement of such a monumental scale that there are always going to be ructions, and big challenges within. This semi-final second leg against Villarreal had looked the biggest Liverpool faced. At half-time, it wasn’t just the Champions League or the quadruple on the line, but perhaps the whole season given the potential effect of elimination.
And what happened out of such anxiety and uncertainty?
Liverpool just raised it, and ended up winning 3-2 on the night with ease.
Many will rightly look to Jurgen Klopp’s decisiveness there, as he brought on the brilliant Luis Diaz to completely change the game.
Others will point elsewhere. Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli was at fault in all three Liverpool goals, to go with his error in the first game.
It is all the sadder, because it will undercut some of Villarreal’s immense achievement.
They should all still take immense pride in getting this far, and pushing Liverpool so much. The final 5-2 aggregate result – not to mention the nature of the second half – will probably ensure it won’t be remembered as such when people look back in the records, but Unai Emery’s transformed side did have Klopp’s very worried.
They were beaten by a bigger club’s inevitable superiority, but also their own efforts.
The truth was they looked exhausted in the second half. They had put so much into the first.
It had for 45 minutes made this yet another Champions League classic, before it became another routine Liverpool win.
Belief in a comeback coursed through a buoyant little stadium, the small size of the Madrigal only amplifying the atmosphere – and firing what happened on the pitch.
Villarreal started by doing to Liverpool exactly what they do to so many others. On a night of such reversals, it was like Klopp’s players just couldn’t handle the intensity of the home side. Villarreal just went for it and didn’t let up for the rest of the half. They were immediately swept along by the emotional swell of an early goal, to go with the energy of their crowd.
It wasn’t all force of will, though. There was forensic planning, as – like many others – they repeatedly went for the area behind those wing-backs.
Pervis Estupinan found so much free space there in the third minute, but still had to play the right pass. He did so brilliantly, with a deep cross that could have seen Etienne Capoue score himself. Whether he tried to is open to debate, but the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder did seem to look up just as he made contact, the ball being diverted back for the relentless Boulaye Dia to finish.
Liverpool, who so often bring the chaos, were being swallowed up by it. So many players were making basic errors. There was little pressing, and almost no intensity. It was like they were completely caught cold, and were almost caught again in the same way moments later. From another Estupinan cross behind Trent Alexander-Arnold, the returning Gerard Moreno powered a header at goal. Andy Robertson didn’t seem to know much about it as his back blocked it, and the manner Naby Keita hacked the ball away spoke to the anxiety that was running through the team.
Keita himself caused more moments later, with an awful back pass that played Moreno in, the forward putting Giovani Lo Celso in on goal.
Alisson came for it and got the ball but also the man. This really was open to interpretation. Referee Danny Makkelie didn’t allow for any, though, immediately and emphatically waved the claims away.
Villarreal didn’t dwell on it, though. They immediately went one better, to bring it level. Capoue this time crossed from the right, and Francis Coquelin soared above Alexander-Arnold to plunder a brilliant header.
Having got the equaliser so early, though, there was that sudden reality that hits such teams. It even happened to Liverpool in Istanbul. They now had something to lose.
On the other side, Klopp also went to win it. The disappointing Diogo Jota was brought off for Diaz.
His energy alone was almost enough. Diaz was persistently stretching Villarreal. Liverpool had returned to their usual level. The second half was all red, and soon left no doubt.
Fabinho got the goal that ultimately blew away all of the remaining anxiety. There was an impressively cool calculation to that, too. Receiving the ball wide of Rulli’s goal from a Mohamed Salah pass, the Brazilian delayed when everyone expected a cross, before catching Rulli out. Moments later, Diaz did the same, putting an easy header through the goalkeeper’s legs.
Having barely offered a presence when he was actually in his goal, Rulli then went for the natural follow-up to that by just vacating it. It left Sadio Mane with the easiest goal of the night, and a last few minutes that were so different to how it started.
Liverpool had overcome, to keep on course for Paris and, well, everything else.
This is now the second season in their history where they have played in every possible match, after 2000-01.
There will be other references to history. The last time they played a Champions League final, after all, it was against Real Madrid.
They get to watch that other semi-final with some comfort now, but that after a much more uncomfortable night than anyone expected.
That, nevertheless, is what these kinds of pursuits require.