Liverpool roar through to Europa League final on another Kop glory night
Published 05/05/2016 | 22:41
Liverpool reached their first European final for nine years with a comprehensive 3-0 win over a 10-man Villarreal side who lost their heads in the red-hot cauldron of Anfield.
The Spanish side are not the first side to succumb to the almost magical powers of the famous old ground and they will probably not be the last.
But having arrived with a reputation for defensive discipline they were overcome in this Europa League semi-final second leg by whirling dervishes with a renewed hunger for silverware and a wall of noise rolling down off the Kop.
Bruno's early own goal settled the nerves before Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana wrapped things up after the break, with Villarreal's Victor Ruiz needlessly sent off with the score still finely balanced at 2-0, when an away goal would have turned it in the visitors' favour.
A banner on the Kop simply reads 'European Elite', and while this competition may not be where a club of Liverpool's history are used to playing, it offers a path back to the big time with a win in Basle later this month - in addition to a trophy. The opponents there will be Sevilla.
Liverpool had never lost any of their nine previous semi-final second legs at home, and this was no different with fans lining the streets in their thousands to welcome the team before kick-off and making a significant contribution inside.
Manager Jurgen Klopp, whose influence on this run to the final cannot be under-estimated, had warned fans not to expect a repeat of the Dortmund quarter-final performance but whereas then they had finished with a rampaging final 20 minutes Liverpool were out of the blocks quickly this time.
Mario Gaspar and Jonathan dos Santos had two early chances, with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet saving smartly from the former, but after that it was a red tide crashing against a yellow wall.
The hosts made the breakthrough with their first serious attack seven minutes in. Nathaniel Clyne's cross from the right caused consternation in the visitors' defence, Roberto Firmino's return produced panic and - under pressure from Sturridge - midfielder Bruno diverted the ball into his own net.
Lallana's first-time clip from James Milner's through-ball rolled agonisingly wide of one post, Villarreal's Tomas Pina headed Milner's corner just wide of the other, while Philippe Coutinho's effort from distance was deflected wide.
With Dejan Lovren putting in a commanding performance at the back, Milner covering virtually every blade of grass in midfield alongside Emre Can, who cruised through 90-plus minutes belying the three weeks he had been sidelined with ankle ligament damage, and Firmino and Lallana linking play to Sturridge, the domination was almost total.
Villarreal, as predicted by Klopp, quickly switched to spoiling tactics with goalkeeper Alphonse Areola wasting time at every opportunity, Roberto Soldado pushing his luck with Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai and getting booked and Denis Suarez seemingly completely losing his head for the best part of 30 minutes.
But Liverpool could not press home their advantage initially, and only a weak connection from Cedric Bakambu on the stroke of half-time prevented Mignolet from being extended more than he was.
Villarreal sensed they had weathered the storm as they came out for the second half, but aside from one Soldado header over it was the hosts who generated the chances.
Coutinho and Milner both tested Areola, as did Sturridge, and after having one angled shot palmed away, he was much more clinical when Firmino popped the ball through a crowd of legs, cleverly staying onside to poke a shot through Areola's legs just past the hour.
Villarreal's task was made more difficult when Victor Ruiz, booked in the first half, was sent off for a second yellow card after standing on Lallana.
Firmino tested Areola from distance but Moreno's push on Suarez inside the penalty area could have ended Liverpool's dreams in one moment of madness. To their relief, no spot-kick was awarded.
And a trip to Switzerland was secured nine minutes from time when Firmino, brilliant throughout, found space on the left to cross for Sturridge and although he failed to connect properly Lallana swivelled to turn the ball home.
Klopp wants Liverpool to recreate the atmosphere for every game.
He told BT Sport 1: "Wonderful. A brilliant game from my side. What power, what a performance. Attitude, readiness, everything. The first 30 minutes was emotion and the last 15 minutes.
"The whole night. What can I say, it was unbelievable.
"If this is the difference from the Premier League then it's easy to change - create atmospheres like this in every game. We know what we have to do Sunday."
Sturridge was happy to do his bit to send Liverpool through and felt they fully deserved their victory, saying: "It was about soaking up the atmosphere and putting on a performance. We had to work our socks off tonight but at the end we got the result we needed and we deserved it.
"I'm grateful to God for all I've been blessed with. There's always going to be ups and downs in football. You're going on the pitch and showing the boys what you're about. Putting your body on the line and being prepared to miss chances.
"If you don't take shots you don't score so it's important just to be on the pitch, playing games and scoring goals for me is a great feeling."
Lallana echoed those sentiments and his goal effectively killed off the game.
He said: "That killed the game (third goal). We knew it was going to be a difficult night. Even at 1-0 at half time, we knew they could have got the away goal but credit to the lads tonight.
"We showed great guts, we got the second goal and even with the second if they'd have got the goal they'd have won so to get the third goal with them being down to 10 men killed the game. The lads deserve it, to be in another final. Hopefully we can go on and win it."
TWEET OF THE MATCH
Former Liverpool defender John Arne Riise(@JARiiseOfficial) - "Klopp is giving me goosebumps!! So much passion!!!! What a manager."
Simon Mignolet: 7
Nathaniel Clyne: 7
Dejan Lovren: 8
Kolo Toure: 7
Alberto Moreno: 7
James Milner: 8
Emre Can: 8
Adam Lallana: 8
Philippe Coutinho: 7
Roberto Firmino: 9
Daniel Sturridge: 7
Joe Allen (for Coutinho, 82): 7
Christian Benteke (for Firmino, 89): 6
Lucas Leiva (for Sturridge, 90): 6
Alphonse Areola: 5
Mario Gaspar: 7
Mateo Musacchio: 7
Víctor Ruiz: 5
Jaume Costa: 6
Denis Suarez: 6
Bruno Soriano: 6
Tomas Pina: 6
Jonathan dos Santos: 7
Roberto Soldado: 6
Cedric Bakambu: 6
Manu Trigueros (for Pina, 60): 6
Adrian Lopez (for Soldado, 69): 6
Daniele Bonera (for Dos Santos, 73): 6
Roberto Firmino. The Brazil international was superb throughout, not only for his tireless running but the quality of his link-up play and vision.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
Adam Lallana's shot on the turn to make it 3-0 and end any chances of a Villarreal comeback.
VIEW FROM THE BENCH
Jurgen Klopp had a few choice words for opposite number Marcelino as Villarreal's players launched into tackles, feigned injury and generally wasted time. The German got his team selection spot-on, selecting Sturridge who came up with one goal and could have had another. Tactically Klopp also pitched it right, with a high-intensity start matching the crowd's fervour.
MOAN OF THE MATCH
Villarreal's spoiling tactics and histrionics early in the first half were hardly befitting a European semi-final.
WHO'S UP NEXT?
Liverpool v Watford (Premier League, Sunday May 8)
Villarreal v Deportivo (La Liga, Sunday May 8)