Belfast Telegraph

Red letter day as sublime Liverpool march into Europa League final

Liverpool 3-0 Villarreal (Liverpool win 3-1 on aggregate)

By Simon Hughes

Daniel Sturridge's eyes were bulging, ecstasy seizing his face. His arms and hands were uncontrollable, pumping the night air in unbridled celebration rather than cool, rehearsed dance.

In the scrum that followed, he needed treatment because someone punched him by accident. It may have been self-inflicted.

Soon, Jurgen Klopp's fury at Alberto Moreno for nearly conceding a needless penalty, which may have sent Villarreal through, had to be delivered by Lucas, the substitute, because Moreno was too far away from the technical area.

Anyone who dismisses Liverpool's run to a Europa League final with Sevilla as insignificant because it is not the Champions League is either biased or has forgotten what football is meant to be about. The passage to Basel has been an unexpected, emotional story of recovery.

Liverpool knew they needed to win the Europa League for their season to be considered a success. This was a team carrying a feeling of injustice, smarting from the way defeat was sealed and celebrated by Villarreal's players in Spain last week.

It was also the first match at Anfield since the Hillsborough inquest reached a verdict last week, with a card display and an emotional 'You'll Never Walk Alone' ringing around the ground before the game.

The only unenforced change made by Marcelino, Villarreal's manager, was a switch of goalkeepers with PSG loanee Alphonse Areola preferred to Sergio Asenjo. The 23-year-old's handling in the opening minutes contributed towards his team's fear.

It was not a surprise, indeed, when Liverpool drew the tie level at 1-1 in the seventh minute.

Areola did not deal with Nathaniel Clyne's sizzling cross after being released by a returning Emre Can following an ankle injury. From there Roberto Firmino, positioned on the other side of the box, fired back and though Sturridge could not make the final touch, his effort to do so forced captain Bruno Soriano to turn the ball into his own net.

Sturridge was getting plenty of touches, his movement reminding that while he is high maintenance, he is worth persevering with.

As the first-half wore on, tensions increased. Villarreal turned it into a battle. Roberto Soldado kept falling over. There were niggly fouls and elbows. It became very scruffy, and the managers were still arguing as they headed down the tunnel after Klopp's assistant Zeljko Buvac had annoyed Marcelino.

Villarreal were settling into a pattern; their 4-4-2 bank swelling Liverpool's attacks; their midfield narrow, causing a congested middle.

The mood shifted again, however, when Liverpool's second came from Sturridge after he was spotted by Firmino, who must possess eyes at the back of his head. When Víctor Ruiz was sent off for a second booking with 20 minutes left, Liverpool's challenge became easier.

Victory was confirmed when Adam Lallana scored their third.

Liverpool now go to Basel, which does not possess a ground big enough to meet expectancy levels in terms of tickets, nor the accommodation for the number of Liverpool fans who will travel.

The Spirit of Shankly group have already written to Uefa outlining their concerns. The final is less than two weeks away.

liverpool win 3-1 on aggregate

LIVERPOOL: Mignolet, Clyne, Toure, Lovren, Moreno, Can, Lallana, Milner, Coutinho (Allen, 82), Sturridge (Lucas, 90), Firmino (Benteke, 89). Subs not used: Ward, Ibe, Skrtel, Smith.

VILLARREAL: Areola, Mario, Musacchio, Victor Ruiz, Jaume, Jonathan (Bonera, 72), Pina (Trigueros, 60), Bruno, Suarez, Soldado (Adrian, 68), Bakambu. Subs not used: Sergio Asenjo, Samuel, Castillejo, Rukavina.

Match Rating: 7/10

Man of the match: Daniel Sturridge

Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary)

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