For Liverpool, a 10th European Cup final appearance beckons and a shot at winning the tournament for the seventh time. It was a night when their class told, specifically the control and composure that has seen them sweep all before them since the turn of the year, raising the prospect of an unprecedented quadruple.
Never in doubt? Not exactly. The first half had been an ordeal for Jürgen Klopp and his players, their first-leg advantage wiped out as Villarreal ran riot. They scored through Boulaye Dia and Francis Coquelin and the crazy thing was that the team seventh in La Liga, with little experience of these kinds of nights, could have had more.
How Liverpool reasserted themselves after the interval, the catalyst being Klopp’s introduction of Luis Díaz on the left. The January signing was virtually unplayable, tormenting anybody in his vicinity with his speed, balance and directness. It was as if a switch had been flicked and, sadly, the lights went out for Gerónimo Rulli, the erratic Villarreal goalkeeper.
He was at fault to varying degrees for each of the goals with which Liverpool turned the tie around, the first being the one that he and his teammates felt the most.
It had been coming. Liverpool, unrecognisable from the first half, playing higher, more cohesively, finding the spaces and their passing patterns. But surely not when Fabinho took a pass up the inside right from Mohamed Salah and unloaded from a tight angle? Rulli had the position but, in real time, the shot seemed to go through him, and did go between his legs. Liverpool were up and running. They would not look back.
Díaz got the goal his performance merited, timing his run through Villarreal’s last line to rise and power a header from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross past Rulli, the goalkeeper feeling the ball go through his legs again. And Villarreal disintegrated thereafter, Liverpool ramming home their superiority with relish.
Sadio Mané scored the third after Naby Keïta had wafted a lovely ball through for him but it was another personal disaster for Rulli. When he bolted a long way from his line, it was an all-or-nothing move. He got nothing, Mané reaching the ball first, walking it around him and then beating the covering Juan Foyth before rolling into the empty net.
The hard truth for Villarreal was that Liverpool could have embellished the scoreline. Díaz had shot narrowly past the far post just before his goal and, at 3-2, the substitute Curtis Jones was denied by Rulli. Villarreal lost their heads. Pau Torres was booked for a naughty tackle on Mané while Étienne Capoue saw red late on for a second poor challenge.
Klopp has endured some crushing lows against Spanish teams during his tenure, most notably the losses to Unai Emery’s Sevilla in the 2016 Europa League final and Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final. Not here.
It was supposed to have been more straightforward – certainly on the evidence of the first leg last week when Liverpool had choked Villarreal into submission. But with this tight and atmospheric stadium bristling with belief, the home team had raced out of the blocks.
A few pre-match statistics. Liverpool had trailed for a total of 69 minutes in matches since the turn of the year. They had kept 17 clean sheet in 28 games. They had not lost by two goals or more all season. Villarreal did not heed them . They had dreamed of scoring the first goal. When it came inside three minutes they were in fantasy land. “Yes, we can,” had been the cry from the home crowd before kick-off. Now it reverberated with even more feeling.
The early goal was all about the touch of Capoue. He tore around the back of Andy Robertson to reach a left-wing cross from Pervis Estupiñán and the first-time cut-back was perfect, on a plate for Dia, who had burst away from Virgil van Dijk.
Emery’s team snapped into challenges and they repeatedly found spaces in behind Alexander-Arnold and Robertson. Liverpool needed to shake their heads clear, to establish some sort of control but it was Villarreal who scented blood and they had the chances for 2-0 before 20 minutes were on the clock. Dani Parejo sent a low shot just wide while Gerard Moreno headed against Robertson from another Estupiñán cross when he might have done better.
Liverpool could get little going before the interval and Villarreal were unlucky not to get a penalty on 37 minutes when Keïta gave away possession and Moreno played in Giovani Lo Celso. Alisson seemed to hesitate before he cleaned him out and, if the goalkeeper got a piece of the ball, it was not entirely by design. Villarreal did not cry. Instead, they scored again.
Capoue crossed, after coming back inside Robertson with a Cruyff turn, and Coquelin leapt in front of Alexander-Arnold to power home.
Klopp told his players that they had to move smarter in the second half, use the ball on the half-turn, mix it up. Villarreal had marked one-on-one before the break and Liverpool had been too static. Now they cut loose. Villarreal, meanwhile, appeared to have punched themselves out. They could not maintain the intensity.
Alexander-Arnold watched a shot deflect off Coquelin, loop up and drop down on to the top of the crossbar while Díaz fluffed an attempted scissors kick when well-placed. Rather abruptly, the tide had turned. Klopp and Liverpool were on their way.