It’s one thing to be big favorites; another to make it count.
Liverpool took a significant step towards their 10th European Cup final on a night they refused to lose sight of their plan, bringing them to the point where an unprecedented quadruple is a possibility.
Villarreal came to frustrate. It was an approach that had worked in previous rounds, helping them stage stunning robberies that saw them leapfrog Juventus and Bayern Munich. With the scoreline blank in the meantime, Unai Emery must have felt like he was part of the path to further plunder.
Liverpool stayed cool. They continued to press on the front foot, to handle the ball, but with more rhythm, more feeling. And they blasted the gates with two bursts in quick succession, the first when a Jordan Henderson cross deflected the hapless Pervis Estupiñán to float into the far corner.
Villarreal were in shock and they were devastated when Sadio Mané ran on a ball from Mohamed Salah to beat Gerónimo Rulli. The visitors never threatened each other and it is hard to see how they can turn things around in the return match next Tuesday.
The banners flew in the Kop before kick-off, reminding everyone why Liverpool are European royalty and underscoring how one of the great David v Goliath stories at this stage of the competition.
Villarreal didn’t play top-flight football in Spain until 1998-99 and they only won one major trophy – the Europa League last season. The population of their city is 50,000; in other words, less than Anfield’s capacity.
This Liverpool side have a fear factor and their pre-match calling card featured a devastating stat. Since January 2, they had lost only one result that mattered: in the 2-2 Premier League draw at Manchester City.
Villarreal were compact in their 4-4-2 system. They always would be. It was the game of their lives and a full commitment was the bare minimum for Unai Emery, who had only bad memories of this stadium before. During his time at Arsenal, he had come here three times and lost all three.
Liverpool wanted to bring their usual aggression, with and without the ball, and it was a little worrying for them when Rulli took his time on the first free-kick of the game. With two minutes on the clock. The Kop howled. Rulli followed the same routine whenever he could while his teammates were quite quick to get down and slow to get up. It was about breaking the rhythm of Liverpool.
Jürgen Klopp’s side had to be patient after the opening goal didn’t materialise. It could have done. Mané had failed to control after Ibrahima Konaté headed in from a corner – the ball came quickly forward – but the big chance in the first quarter came when Salah collected a pass from Mané on the right and looked up. Mané made his gesture, Salah’s cross was perfect but the header was wrong.
Villarreal showed composure on the ball in the first half; they played smart, which is no small feat in the face of the Liverpool press. They were caught at times but there was never a sense of panic as they ticked off the minutes until half-time.
Emery’s side barely got through halfway before the break but it was on blocks and tackles, maintaining form. Liverpool had other flickers. Salah curled off target, Mane spun and saw a deflected shot wide as Salah lifted a high volley. He had been chosen by the sumptuous volley of Trent Alexander-Arnold after a diagonal from Andy Robertson. Thiago Alcântara also shook the post from 30 yards.
Villarreal is spiritually linked to Liverpool as a city. Their nickname Yellow Submarine derives from the color of their shirts and the melody of Liverpool’s most famous band. The Beatles released it in 1966, and in the 1967-68 season a group of Villarreal fans began playing it at their club’s matches on a battery-operated record player.
The Anfield crowd didn’t really feel connected, but football is a game of styles and Liverpool had to overcome this one. They found a way in the second half.
Fabinho had seen a goal disallowed following a corner, Virgil van Dijk heading towards him from an offside position, and there was a chance for the decisive goal. Liverpool will say they drove it themselves after a left-right move saw Henderson exchange passes with Alexander-Arnold and work the first real overlap of the night. His cross took off from Estupiñán and sailed to Rulli.
Mane’s finish was deadly, offloaded quickly under pressure after Villarreal allowed Salah to turn – their first real mistake – and, in that moment, it happened, with Liverpool smelling blood and a third goal murderer.
He didn’t come, despite the best efforts of Andy Robertson, Van Dijk and Luis Díaz. Two seemed enough.