Luis Diaz, surely the signing of the season, provided the torpedoes that eventually sank a Yellow Submarine, that blew a strangely listless Liverpool out of the water, in a quite astonishing first half in Spain. Trailing 2-0 as the second half began, Liverpool scored three in a second half that booked their place in Paris, for a tenth European Cup Final.
On a rain-sodden pitch, Liverpool found themselves a goal behind as early as the third minute, and with Villarreal as ferocious and tenacious in their pressing, as Liverpool were in the first leg, whilst Liverpool themselves were as abject as Villarreal were at Anfield, it looked like things could only get worse. In fact, given Liverpool’s inability to keep the ball even fleetingly, and an equal inability to play any football whatsoever, they were perhaps fortunate to only be 2-0 down at half-time.
In a first-half display, in which half a dozen Liverpool players put in their worst performance of the season, with Andy Robertson, Thiago, and Naby Keita particularly poor, it appeared entirely possible that a fifth European Cup Final in three seasons would slip through their grasp. Villarreal were, without doubt, a completely different proposition from the team that looked so frightened at Anfield, this time pressing, harrying, playing forward, and full of purpose and aggression, but Liverpool certainly contributed to their own first-half downfall. With the tie level, as the first forty-five minutes concluded, it was inconceivable that Klopp, who genuinely looked puzzled watching his side in the first half, wouldn’t make changes at half-time.
The only surprise, as a chastened side took to the field in the second half, was that Klopp only made one change to the eleven, but it was a change that undoubtedly turned the game. Yes, Liverpool showed more composure and made better decisions, whilst Villarreal strangely changed their approach, but it was the Colombian that transformed the intensity and tempo of Liverpool’s performance. Not only did he stretch the game, by hugging the left touchline, but he injected both pace and directness into the team’s football. Showing his confidence in attempting a bicycle kick within five minutes of the second half, it was though a strike from Fabinho, through the hands of a hapless Villarreal goal-keeper, that restored Liverpool’s lead in the tie.
Fabinho’s goal came in the 61st minute, silenced the previously raucous home crowd, and within five minutes, it was Diaz that put the tie beyond Villarreal. Again, the ball went through the goal-keepers legs, this time from a close-range header courtesy of a left-footed cross from Trent. In truth, once Liverpool began to play the ‘Liverpool way’, or what might be more accurately described as the ‘Klopp way’, there was only likely to be one winner. Victory later being assured, with a goal from Mane, who beating the goal-keeper to the ball almost on the halfway line, went on to evade a desperate lunge from a Villarreal defender, and stroked the ball into an empty net.
As the Yellow Submarine was finally torpedoed to the bottom of the sea in the dying minutes, its seasick crew lost their discipline. First half scorer Capoue saw red, his teammates completely lost their shape, and Liverpool really should have scored more. As the final whistle beckoned, Robertson and Thiago made way, and Curtis Jones helped see out a game, which means Liverpool will grace yet another European Final. Whether it will replicate the glory of 1981, when Liverpool defeated Real Madrid in Paris remains to be seen, but victory over Villarreal has ensured that this phenomenal squad of players, will have played the maximum number of games possible, in a season that still offers the possibility of truly astonishing achievement.