The excitement is mounting in Liverpool. Having already won the Carabao Cup and booked a place in the FA Cup final, the Merseysiders have now reached the final of the Champions League as well, becoming the first English side to appear in three finals in the same season ever. The quadruple never seemed closer; and indeed, it never was closer for any team in the history of English football.
There were moments in the second leg of their semifinal clash with Villarreal at the Estadio La Ceramica on Tuesday, when their belief looked severely shaken, despite the two-goal advantage from the first leg. Goals from Boulaye Dia in the third and Francis Coquelin in the 41st minute meant the aggregate score was back level before the break, but then, Fabinho (62′), Luis Diaz (67′) and Sadio Mane (74′) made sure the Villarreal comeback eventually failed.
Well done Villarreal
Nonetheless, the effort the Villarreal players put in and the fact that they came close to another upset after knocking out Juventus and Bayern Munich is a great achievement for the La Liga side. This was their second ever Champions League semifinal, 16 years on from the first, and though they once more failed to progress to the final, the run up to this point is no less glorious.
Villarreal finished second to Manchester United in Group F, the team they beat in last season’s Europa League final, and the general consensus among the neutral football lovers was that the 20-time English champions were extremely lucky to land the top spot ahead of them. However, neither Juventus nor Bayern Munich seemed prepared for what was about to hit them in the next two rounds, and the Yellow Submarine torpedoed them from the competition against all odds.
The club, the players and their supporters showed nothing but class on and off the pitch, and every football lover across the globe will be wishing them nothing but well for the remainder of the season in which they must try and force a way into the Europa League once more.
Klopp the halftime motivator
From Liverpool’s perspective, the main problem in the first half was that the early opener they conceded shook them severely, rending them incapable of holding on to the ball the way they usually do and force the play away from their own goal and towards that of Geronimo Rulli.
The impression after the opening 45 minutes was that Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara needed to get on the ball more, and Naby Keita needed to be replaced as soon as possible – the Guinean midfielder was arguably the worst player on the pitch. Also, the quick feet of Luis Diaz, who started on the bench, were obviously needed.
Nonetheless, Klopp obviously only felt the need for this last change at that point, and Diaz came on to replace the relatively inefficient Diogo Jota. The fact that Liverpool’s attacking line looked much livelier from that point on needs no special explanation, particularly with Fabinho and Thiago stepping their game up as required, but the way Keita managed to keep pace with these changes for the better and the level of his own improvement in the second half was staggering.
He was suddenly among the better performers on the pitch, drifting with the ball here and there, with his decisions much more sensible and passes suddenly finding their intended targets. By the time Jordan Henderson came on to finally replace him, the final score was set and Liverpool were in front, not only on aggregate, but on the night as well.
What exactly Jurgen Klopp told his players during the break, what kind of magic he weaved around them to make them snap out of the first-half stupor will always remain a mystery. The German said once that if footage of his halftime talk in the dressing room ever found its way out, he would leave the club.
The road ahead
Painful and underwhelming as it must feel, Villarreal need to turn their attention towards the remaining La Liga matches and see what they can do there, always hoping to play in a European competition next term. At the moment they are in seventh place with 52 points and four matches left to play, and there’s very little chance for them to overtake Atletico Madrid in fourth with a nine-point advantage. Reaching Real Betis in fifth (58) or Real Sociedad in sixth (56) will be challenging enough.
But for Liverpool, they will be eagerly awaiting the other semifinal to get resolved, when Real Madrid welcome Manchester City on Wednesday evening. The Premier League leaders have brought the narrowest of advantages to the Spanish capital and it remains to be seen if they can hold on to it in front of the packed Santiago Bernabeu.
But Klopp will certainly be urging his players to put all thoughts about the Champions League final on hold until May 22nd. Right now, Liverpool must beat Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Saturday, Aston Villa at Villa Park three days later, Chelsea in the FA Cup final on the 14th, Southampton at St. Mary’s on the 17th, and eventually Wolverhampton Wanderers at Anfield on the 22nd. If they manage to do all that, and Manchester City fail to win one of their own league matches, Liverpool will be the Premier League champions again and literally one step from the fabled quadruple.
Likely? It remains to be seen.
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