Liverpool 3-0 Villarreal: Jurgen Klopp's Reds reach Europa League final
(Liverpool win 3-1 on aggregate)
Liverpool have reached the Europa League final by beating Villarreal 3-0 at Anfield and 3-1 on aggregate.
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.
Firmino running the show at Anfield https://t.co/zC5YchqH6g— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) May 5, 2016
In the scrum that followed, he needed treatment because someone punched him by accident on the lip. It may have been self-inflicted.
Soon, Jürgen 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 for the message to be heard in the surrounding noise.
Anyone who dismisses Liverpool's run to a Europa League final with Seville as insignificant because it is not Champions League is either bias or has completely forgotten what football is meant to be about. The passage to Basel has been an unexpected, emotional story of recovery.
Liverpool that knew they needed to win the Europa League for their season to be considered a success. This was 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. A febrile atmosphere was expected.
When the bus transporting Villarreal’s players from the Hilton Hotel reached the junction where the King Harry pub meets Anfield Road, they were greeted by noise, pyrotechnic smoke, red sky and old men on scaffolding.
As it inched towards the stadium through the throngs that had began to gather at 5pm, the size of the task in front must have become reality: it was not just Liverpool’s team they had to beat. It was the crowd too.
Klopp spent warm up watching only his players and not Villarreal’s, like he does with most opposition teams. There was a sense this was all about what Liverpool could do and whether Villarreal were able to resist the pressure.
The only change made by Marcelino, Villarreal’s manager, not enforced was a switch of goalkeepers with Paris Saint Germain loanee Alphonse Aréola preferred to Sergio Asenjo. The 23-year-old’s handling in the opening minutes contributed towards his team’s initial fear.
It was not a surprise, indeed, when Liverpool drew the tie level at 1-1 in the seventh minute. Aréola did not deal adequately 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 Daniel Sturridge could not make the final touch, his effort to do so did enough to force captain Bruno Soriano to turn the ball into his own net.
Liverpool were kicking towards the Kop. Their lead on the night should have extended to two when a delicious sweeping pass by James Milner cut out the presence of an entire defence. Adam Lallana, however, could not steer it in.
Sturridge, meanwhile, was getting plenty of touches, his movement reminding that while he is high maintenance, he is worth perservering with.
Villarreal needed to do something to halt the flow. Equally, Liverpool had to be wary of the visiting side’s potential on the counter attack and although there was a chance for Mario Gaspar, which Simon Mignolet repelled, Cédric Bakambu’s involvement – the top scorer left in the competition - was restricted by Dejan Lovren, who is emerging as the leader in Liverpool's defence.
As the first half wore on, tensions began to increase. Villarreal slowly turned it into a battle. Roberto Soldado kept on falling over. There were niggly fouls and flying elbows. It became very scruffy, indeed, and the managers were still arguing as they headed down the tunnel at the break after Klopp’s assistant Zeljko Buvac had done something to really annoy Marcelino.
There feeling was growing that it was just as well for Liverpool that they scored early because 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 to be able to execute such an exquisite flick.
When Víctor Ruiz was sent off for a second booking with nearly 20 minutes still left, Liverpool’s challenge became easier.
Victory was confirmed when Adam Lallana scored their third. Liverpool now go to Basel, the city in Swizerland, which does not possess a ground big enough to meet expectancy levels in terms of tickets, nor the accommodation for the number of Liverpool supporters who will travel there.
The Spirit of Shankly group has already written to UEFA outlining their concerns. The final is less than two weeks away.
Dejan Lovren: "The 12th player helped us today!" https://t.co/ml1Pqy7O9w— Liverpool FC (@LFC) May 5, 2016
SIMON MIGNOLET: The oft-derided Belgian produced an important early stop to prevent a crucial away goal but had little else to do. 7
NATHANIEL CLYNE: The England right-back was, like always, as much an attacking threat as a defender. Created panic that led to the opening goal. 7
DEJAN LOVREN: The hero against Borussia Dortmund produced another impressive performance, winning headers and tackles aplenty. 8
KOLO TOURE: The veteran did not always look the most comfortable, but was solid and worked well with Lovren. 7
ALBERTO MORENO: The marauding full-back was lucky to avoid a penalty for foolishly pushing Denis Suarez but did well for the most part. 7
JAMES MILNER: Liverpool's captain led by example, working tirelessly and producing some lovely passes. 8
EMRE CAN: Back from ankle ligament damage, the midfielder's bite and guile made a big impact against the rattled Spaniards. 8
ADAM LALLANA: Pressed impressively and showed some nice, deft touches. Had a great chance to score in the first half and turned home the late third. 8
PHILIPPE COUTINHO: Unable to produce a moment of magic but worked hard on and off the ball, playing an important role in the attack. 7
ROBERTO FIRMINO: The heart of everything Liverpool did well. Produced the cross bundled into his own net by Bruno Soriano and the ball for Daniel Sturridge to slot home, before then playing a key role in the third. 9
DANIEL STURRIDGE: Brought in having not started the previous three European ties and justified his inclusion by extending his run to six goals in nine starts. 7
JOE ALLEN (for Coutinho, 82): Brought on to add extra solidity to the midfield in the closing stages. 7
CHRISTIAN BENTEKE (for Firmino, 89): Unable to make an impact but his introduction allowed Firmino to receive a deserved standing ovation. 6
LUCAS LEIVA (for Sturridge, 90): A stoppage-time substitution aimed at winding down the clock. 6
Five things we learned
Liverpool are through to the Europa League final after comprehensively overcoming Villarreal under the Anfield lights.
Simon Peach picks out five things he learned from the 3-0 semi-final second leg win which sees the Reds through 3-1 on aggregate.
VILLARREAL COULD NOT COPE WITH THE ATMOSPHERE
Thousands of fans lined Anfield Road to welcome the teams and the din only increased when the players emerged in front of a packed house. That fervour rattled Villarreal as Bruno Soriano quickly turned the ball into his own goal, with the likes of Denis Suarez and Roberto Soldado losing their cool during a tempestuous first half. The latter was taken off before he received a second booking, but Victor Ruiz saw red for his second booking as indiscipline cost the visitors.
EMRE CERTAINLY CAN
Ankle ligament damage at Borussia Dortmund last month appeared to end the Germany international's season, yet he was back in the team just 21 days later. Emre Can showed no sign of rustiness in a lung-busting display, shielding the defence with aplomb, reading the play impressively and providing an attacking outlet when necessary. The versatile defensive midfielder is likely to play another key role in the Basle finale.
ANFIELD'S SMALL TECHNICAL AREA BREEDS CONTEMPT
There can be few smaller technical areas than the one at Anfield, where just a matter of feet and a deafened fourth official separates the managers. Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp and highly-strung counterpart Marcelino argued as tempers frayed in the first half, with the feistiness continuing after the break.
ROBERTO FIRMINO IS THE CATALYST
There are few more intelligent attacking players than the man signed from Hoffenheim last summer. Firmino so often releases the ball at the opportune moment and takes out opponents by his movement and dribbles. That sharpness of thought was evident from the outset, with his cutback leading to the early own goal before sliding through Daniel Sturridge for the second. Firmino was also key in the third, finding Sturridge for an effort Adam Lallana directed home.
DEJAN LOVREN HAS TURNED THE CORNER
The last-gasp quarter-final heroics against Borussia Dortmund further ingratiated the defender to a fan base that had questioned why on earth they signed him from Southampton. Lovren has belatedly blossomed under Klopp's tutorship and was impressive throughout the second leg, marshalling the defence and reading the play well. Hard in the tackle but composed when Villarreal attacked, it was another impressive display from the Croatia international.
We look at some of the key issues ahead of the match.
WHAT TO DO WITH DANIEL STURRIDGE?
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has not started the England striker in their last three European encounters (two against Borussia Dortmund and last week's first leg in Villarreal).
He has preferred to utilise the harder running of Divock Origi (now injured) and Roberto Firmino but he does need a goal and Sturridge has five in his last eight starts.
IF STURRIDGE ISN'T THE GO-TO MAN, WHO IS?
Philippe Coutinho is the man who has regularly provided the spark and is enjoying the best goalscoring season (12) of his relatively short career.
He has scored six in his last 13 matches, finding the net in big matches against Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund and Everton. He has been ill the last week, restricting him to two 45-minute first-half performances but should be fully recovered for Thursday.
WHAT IMPACT WILL AN AWAY GOAL HAVE?
Liverpool fans should prepare for a worst-case scenario as the side have managed just one clean sheet in their last 11 matches - at home to a desperately poor Everton.
A Villarreal goal would leave the hosts requiring three to reach the final - which is not an impossible task considering their have scored 14 in their last four home games.
SO, CAN WE EXPECT ANOTHER ANFIELD EUROPEAN THRILLER?
It will be virtually impossible to replicate the drama of the previous round's victory over Dortmund when Dejan Lovren scored an added-time winner to secure a remarkable comeback from 4-2 with 24 minutes remaining.
Klopp has warned fans not to expect a repeat performance but supporters will again set the stage by lining the streets armed with flags and flares to welcome the team coach as it makes its way down Anfield Road. The atmosphere in the ground will be no less intense but the crowd will need some encouragement from the team.
WHERE DO VILLARREAL STAND IN ALL THIS?
The Spanish club secured Champions League football at the weekend so all the pressure is off them domestically. In the first leg they did not offer too much to worry Liverpool, although sneaking a late winner tipped the advantage in their favour.
Defensively they are very sound, conceding more than twice only six times in 53 matches this season and they have not lost in Europe since matchday one on September 17.
Emre Can returns
Liverpool midfielder Emre Can returns to the squad ahead of schedule to face Villarreal in the Europa League semi-final second leg at Anfield.
The Germany international was initially ruled out for four weeks with ankle ligament damage mid-April but has recovered sooner than expected.
Manager Jurgen Klopp also has to decide whether to start up front with Daniel Sturridge or stick with Roberto Firmino, as he did in Spain last week.
Provisional squad: Mignolet, Clyne, Lovren, Toure, Moreno, Lucas, Can, Milner, Coutinho, Lallana, Firmino, Ward, Randall, Skrtel, Smith, Allen, Chirivella, Ibe, Sturridge, Benteke.
Belfast Telegraph Digital