Diaz the Liverpool game-changer
Liverpool’s players walked off the pitch in stunned silence as the home crowd roared with delight. It was half-time at the Estadio de la Ceramica and Villarreal had hauled themselves level on aggregate.
Jurgen Klopp’ side looked in serious trouble but fortunately for them, that was as bad as it got. By the end, a night which threatened disaster had turned into one of celebration.
A third Champions League final in five years beckons and it owes a lot to Luis Diaz.
The Colombian, outstanding since his arrival from Porto in January, changed the game after replacing Diogo Jota at the interval, scoring Liverpool’s second goal when he headed home Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross and causing near-constant panic in Villarreal’s previously untroubled defence.
Within 15 minutes of his introduction, he had touched the ball more times than Jota did in the whole of the first half and every one of those touches seemed to strike fear into the yellow-shirted defenders unfortunate enough to find themselves in his vicinity.
Juan Foyth, in particular, will be eager to forget his evening up against Diaz, whose explosive pace and sheer relentlessness gave the former Tottenham right-back no end of difficulties.
Diaz was a whirlwind of activity on Liverpool’s left flank, completing four dribbles and attempting four shots – twice as many as any of his team-mates despite only playing one half.
But in addition to the chaos factor which destabilised Villarreal so effectively, there was composure in how he used the ball, with all but two of his 20 attempted passes finding a red shirt.
Afterwards, Virgil van Dijk lauded his impact as “incredible” and the centre-back was not the only one grateful for the 25-year-old’s contribution. He was Liverpool’s game-changer. Just don’t expect him to start on the bench again in Paris.
Liverpool and Klopp one step closer to immortality
It is a good time to be a Liverpool fan, who can look forward to two more finals this season. Indeed, Jurgen Klopp has guided them into an eighth final during his time as manager and they are just six games away now from an historic quadruple.
Liverpool came here to complete the job, show professionalism and to finish what they started a week ago in the face of a crackling atmosphere – but they showed signs of frailty in the opening 45 minutes.
Experience would eventually tell, aided and abetted by a distinctly ordinary goalkeeping performance from the hosts’ Geronimo Rulli.
Liverpool had been in this position twice before under Klopp, progressing on both occasions before losing the 2018 final to Real Madrid and winning a sixth European Cup against Tottenham the following year.
Only one team has ever overturned a two-goal deficit from a Champions League semi-final – Klopp’s Liverpool against Barcelona that season. Their know-how, particularly in 2019, certainly helped here in spite of Unai Emery’s own very proud knockout history in European competition.
He was the PSG manager on the receiving end of Barcelona’s infamous ‘Remontada’ in 2017 – and was described as the “king of the cups” by Klopp – but this proved a step too far even for him to mastermind his own turnaround for a team currently seventh in La Liga.
Ending May with four trophies in the cabinet is becoming an increasing possibility for Liverpool.
The Carabao Cup was secured in February, and they can also look forward to an FA Cup final in just under a fortnight’s time; underlying all of that is another epic title race which is set to go right down to the wire with Manchester City only one point ahead with four matches.
The relentless pursuit of a quadruple – and a seventh European Cup – rolls on.
Rulli errors cost Villarreal dear over two legs
It is a stat that says it all about Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli. The Argentine has made the most errors leading to goals of any player in the Champions League this season with three.
Two of those came in the second leg defeat to Liverpool as he weakly let Fabinho’s shot through his legs despite it being hit straight at him. A top-class goalkeeper would have definitely stopped the Brazilian’s shot and kept Liverpool scoreless at the time.
He could do little about Luis Diaz’s goal that drew Liverpool level, as his powerful downward header went through his legs.
But Rulli was entirely at fault once again for the third and final goal as he madly rushed out to clear the ball, but was beaten by Mane, who then rounded Juan Foyth to tap into an empty net for a simple finish.
The 29-year-old was always going to be a major weak link following the first leg. He was incredibly shaky at Anfield as he constantly punched the ball and inspired the Liverpool attack more than his defence.
Indeed, he was at fault for Liverpool’s opener at Anfield as Jordan Henderson’s deflected cross somehow looped over him following some poor footwork as he misjudged the flight of the ball.
Over the two legs in this semi-final, Rulli cost his side three goals and things may have been tighter for Liverpool had Villarreal had a better goalkeeper.
In fact, Rulli became the first goalkeeper to make two errors in the same knockout Champions League game since Liverpool’s Loris Karius.
Villarreal boss Unai Emery could certainly learn from how Jurgen Klopp moved on from Karius after that 2018 Champions League final defeat to sign Alisson and fix their goalkeeping issue.