Liverpool blow Villarreal away at Anfield to book Europa League final place
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.