Relief for Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool keep quadruple dream alive after Villarreal scare

Premer League side recover from disastrous first-half show to overcome Villarreal and earn Champions League final spot

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Jurgen Klopp was apprehensive. He felt he needed more than motivational words, which are one of his fortes as a manager, to remind his players that their flimsy opening 45 minutes, their disjointed passing and pressing had been entirely out of character.

So he asked his analysts to seek out some video of what Liverpool had done well in the first half of the second leg of their Champions League semi-final at Villarreal.

His back-up team filed quickly through the clips. But they had bad news for the Liverpool manager. They could find no sustained period of play that showed off Liverpool, one of the most in-form teams in Europe, doing what they do best. Klopp’s men had been outrun and out-thought by a Villarreal who were sharper, more energetic and more disciplined. “We played into their hands,” said Klopp. “Our movements were wrong.”

It was an extraordinary comeback from Villarreal. Two-nil down from an Anfield leg in which they had not had a legitimate shot on target, the team who sit seventh in La Liga, who come from a small, unfashionable town which is barely a pinprick on the map between Castellon and Valencia, had fought their way back to 2-2 on aggregate with 45 minutes left to play, with the home fans in the tight Estadio de la Ceramica noisily sharing their belief in a miracle recovery.

Had Unai Emery, the Villarreal manager, asked for encouraging highlights to be replayed to his players at half-time on Tuesday, he could have taken his pick from a dynamic first half. He could have shown Boulaye Dia, who would normally rank as his fourth or even fifth-choice to start up front, the expert way he put Villarreal 1-0 up on the night with not yet three minutes played. He could have replayed the second goal, from Francis Coquelin, as a demonstration of how to put both Liverpool’s dashing full-backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold in helpless difficulty in the same move.

He could have praised, with images and diagrams, how Villarreal’s closing down of space nullified Liverpool’s Thiago Alcantara, who has been in imperial form lately, or how Diogo Jota had been left chasing shadows. For the first time in many months, Liverpool found themselves confronted with several clear failings. The club aspiring to a Quadruple were in quicksand.

Villarreal 2 Liverpool 3: player ratings

Their reaction would be emphatic, however, albeit aided by some poor goalkeeping from Villarreal’s Geronimo Rulli, who allowed Fabinho’s driven shot and Luis Diaz’s header to squirm between his legs for two of Liverpool’s second-half goals and made a panicked run out of his penalty area to try, in vain, to clear a long ball headed for Sadio Mane. The Senegalese immediately sealed Liverpool’s progress to the Champions League final, 3-2 winners on an evening of startlingly different halves.

One half-time substitution would be crucial for Liverpool’s retaining control, and seizing the momentum. “The solution was that we moved more”, said Klopp acknowledging that replacing Jota with Luis Diaz was that catalyst. Diaz, signed from Porto in January, has made an impact again and again on Liverpool’s season in the last three months. His equaliser against Villarreal was his fifth goal since joining.

“We explained to the boys what we had to do to get stronger and move smarter,” said Klopp of the anxious half-time address to his players. “I was talking about playing football and showing up and being brave.

“After the first three minutes our mind wasn’t right. We were too rushed, you have to play your own football and in the second half we did that. In the first half we didn't move enough and couldn't find the half-spaces in midfield. We were too fixed, there was no flexibility so we had to mix that up to cause them problems. We had to change.”

A relieved Klopp had earned his own place in history, as the first manager to lead a club to the finals of a Champions League, and English League and FA Cups all in the same season. So far, the League Cup has been won. The top of the Premier League, led by Manchester City, is at one point’s distance. After an unsettling night in Spain, the clean sweep of prizes is still a live possibility.

Updated: May 04, 2022, 4:30 PM
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