It was a night where Liverpool’s European pedigree really came to the fore.
After the thrilling chaos of the first Champions League semi-final between Manchester City and Real Madrid at the Etihad 24 hours earlier, Anfield were treated to an exhibition in control.
Villarreal may have knocked out Juventus and Bayern Munich en route to the last four, but they couldn’t put a glove on Jurgen Klopp’s quadruple fighters.
“It’s half-time, nothing else,” Klopp insisted. “This tie isn’t over but we know that.” Klopp kept his emotions in check after the final whistle. There were no flurries of punches in front of the jubilant Kop on this occasion, but deep down, he will have burst with pride.
There is a job to finish in Spain next Tuesday but Liverpool have a foothold in Paris. Villarreal will have to take more risks at home as they attempt to overturn a 2-0 deficit and that should leave the door open for Klopp’s men to put the tie on the counter with no doubt.
What was most impressive about the first leg was how Liverpool maintained a grip on the proceedings throughout the game. There was no respite for the La Liga outfit.
After a first half where the hosts had a dozen shots and hit the woodwork twice, it would have been easy for them to get frustrated as the breakthrough eluded them. Liverpool could have lost their rag over wasting time.
But they stuck to their guns, kept their composure, kept moving the ball at pace and got their reward with that devastating flurry shortly after the break when Anfield were swinging.
Yes, there was a great deal of luck attached to the opener as Jordan Henderson’s cross deflected Pervis Estupinan and edged the nervous Geronimo Rulli, but the change of play and movement to create the situation in the first place was exceptional. Henderson has brought Liverpool forward many times and when you keep asking so many questions, eventually something will come your way.
There were no nerves, no signs of self-doubt – just a growing sense of inevitability both on the pitch and in the stands that the goals would come at some point, given Liverpool’s unwavering dominance.
The second was a beauty as Sadio Mane notched his 20th of the season converting Mohamed Salah’s exquisite pass. Mane is now tied with Didier Drogba as the most successful African player in the Champions League Round of 16 with 14 goals.
Two goals in two minutes kept Liverpool in full control against Villarreal 🔴
— The Athletic UK (@TheAthleticUK) April 27, 2022
Liverpool have shown patience, maturity and quality in all departments. He was underpinned by a collective energy and work ethic that repeatedly toppled Villarreal. They just couldn’t handle the press.
Considering it was Liverpool’s 55th game of the season in all competitions, they looked remarkably fresh. Only Roberto Firmino is currently out through injury and he is close to a return.
It’s a testament to the hard work of the club’s medical and sports science staff, as well as Klopp’s smart rotation policy, which has helped ensure no one is overworked. The players enjoyed the rare luxury of being given two days off after the rout of Manchester United last week. The team did not meet until Friday noon.
Three home games against United, Everton and Villarreal in the space of eight days were won by an aggregate score of 8-0. Opta data shows that in those matches, Liverpool completed 1,622 more passes than their opponents and scored 93 more touches in the opposition box. This is a surprising level of superiority.
Eight members of Klopp’s Villarreal line-up started the 2019 Champions League final triumph over Tottenham and that wealth of experience is crucial on nights like these. They know what it takes to get there and they want to savor it again. Luis Diaz, Thiago and Ibrahima Konate weren’t there in Madrid three years ago, but they helped take this team to another level.
Diaz, so full of desire and intention with and without the ball, consistently hits such highs that 21-goal Diogo Jota has found his playing time limited in recent weeks.
Thiago, who walked away from Anfield holding the man of the match award, continues to shine. In the last three home games he had an astonishing 326 out of 337 pass attempts. the pole. He looks like a man with complete job satisfaction.
Konaté blossomed in his first season with Liverpool to the point that it is now very unclear whether the young French centre-back or Joel Matip should link up with Virgil van Dijk with potentially two showpiece finals to come.
What a contrast to a year ago, when Liverpool’s Champions League interest was cut short in the quarter-finals by Real Madrid. That night, Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips formed the defensive axis of the club.
Every time Villarreal signed players at Anfield, the threat was quickly quashed. They only had one shot in the space of 90 minutes. Konaté, who had two tackles, two clearances and an interception, got possession for Liverpool 11 times. Only Andrew Robertson could match that number. Konate, who uses his 6ft 4in frame so effectively, is learning from Van Dijk’s master.
The only thing missing was more goals to put the tie beyond doubt, but Liverpool still find themselves in a position of immense strength.
“It’s very difficult,” admitted Villarreal boss Unai Emery. “We have to change something, maybe tactically. We must dream. They will suffer more than tonight at Villarreal.
Liverpool could not suffer less. It was as comfortable as a Champions League semi-final. They are on the eve of a third final in the space of five seasons.
The quest for the impossible continues to accelerate.
(Top photo: José Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)