Elegant tributes on hard day's night for depleted Reds
Published 29/04/2016 | 02:30
This was the semi-final that would shape Liverpool's season - and it followed the closure of the most fundamental semi-final in the club's history.
Hillsborough and the events of April 15, 1989, utterly dominated the build-up, and rightly so, in the wake of the inquest verdicts and there was elegant acknowledgement paid in this tiny ceramics town in the Castelló hinterland which boasts a rather good football team and a fervently committed support that raucously drives it on.
In this week it felt like a good location; a good match to be at.
The inquests verdicts into the deaths of the 96 Liverpool fans, the gross, horrific injustice of the past 27 years, has resonated throughout Europe - and indeed the world - and there was a simple, touching banner unfurled by the home supporters at the south end of El Madrigal. "96 You'll Never Walk Alone," it read on a yellow background.
Yellow because Villarreal are 'El Submarino Amarillo' - the Yellow Submarine - and it was because of that song by Liverpool's most famous sons, The Beatles, that they adopted the nickname.
Dropped They used to also play it as the club's pre-match anthem - it stems from when Villarreal gained promotion from the regional preferente league to the Third Division back in 1966-'67, when Yellow Submarine was riding high in the charts and was covered by a Spanish group called Los Mustang.
It was dropped several years ago but was revived for this game and was sang with the scarves twirling. Twenty thousand scarves, in fact, had been handed out - which would cover almost half the population of this modest town - and a carnival atmosphere was created in the hours to kick-off with an inflatable submarine paraded through the town's streets and locals encouraged to decorate their balconies.
In the backdrop of the Hills-borough inquest jury ruling, it was a difficult for Liverpool and their fans. But not when the first ball was kicked.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (pictured) had reacted with sensitivity as he spoke about Hillsborough as he acknowledged the fight for justice, the horror of what happened and the difficulty of comprehending simply how it was allowed to be like this but he also said that he was new to the club and there were others far more qualified than him to speak.
Klopp was right. It is his immediate business to try and maintain the momentum of an epic win over Borussia Dortmund and the elimination of Manchester United in this competition which he has used to re-energise Liverpool's season.
The complicating factor is his team are without their spine - he has lost Emre Can, Jordan Henderson and Divock Origi to injury with Mamadou Sakho ruled out having failed a drugs test.
Still he made a big call: leaving out Daniel Sturridge who was among the substitutes. Even when Philippe Coutinho was replaced at half-time, feeling unwell, it was Jordon Ibe who Klopp turned to as he demanded a hard-working, high-energy approach against one of the hardest-working teams in Spain; a kind of Atlético Madrid without the edge and a team heading for fourth place in La Liga and with it qualification into the Champions League.
It was a night for the endeavour of James Milner and, Klopp hoped, the movement of Roberto Firmino although, in truth, the Brazilian was a peripheral disappointment until he exploded into life in the second half with an angled shot that struck the post.
What unfolded was an entertaining match. This was far from a sterile, cagey affair despite what was at stake. Both teams were positive, committed and tried to attack.
They both took risks; they both moved the ball quickly and worked hard to break each other down.
For Liverpool there was also the incentive of actually getting through a semi-final and triumphing. Since winning the FA Cup in 2006 they have reached the last four in major competitions eight times but only once, the League Cup in 2012, have they gone on and won the trophy.
It is a tie that remains in the balance. But Liverpool paid for not taking their chances. Villarreal began to tire, badly, and the initiative was with Liverpool as they pushed with - crucially and wrongly - Adam Lallana flagged for offside as he ran through.
An away goal would change everything but so would a home one also and, in injury-time, substitute Adrian Lopez struck to transform the tie (© Daily Telegraph, London)