Liverpool have put foot into their third Champions League final in five seasons after a 2-0 win over the least-loved team in their last four Villarreal.
An own goal by Pervis Estupinan and Sadio Manes 20th of the season within three minutes of the second half did the damage and the only criticism of Jurgen Klopp’s side was that they should have scored more.
The European Cup semi-finals weren’t going to be easy, but that was about as comfortable as it gets – arguably fewer problems than the 5-2 first-leg win over Roma at Anfield that set them on course for a 2018 final defeat by Real brought Madrid.
Under Unai Emery, the visitors had lost just one of 12 away games in Europe in added time at Old Trafford last September, beating Juventus and Bayern Munich to reach their first Champions League semi-final since 2006.
Villarreal were seen as an easy option – as they weren’t Manchester City or Real Madrid – and Liverpool’s dominance from the start suggested LaLiga, finishing seventh in the game, would not score.
Even a 45-minute goalless opening half that set a new competitive record for shots without a goal in a semifinal in the first half was due more to the hosts’ inability to find the net than to opposition resilience.
The dozen attempts they made surpassed every other team since the data was first collected in 2003/04, coming closest when Thiago Alcantara came off the post with a 25-yard shot.
Mane, whose combination with Mohamed Salah was at his best, had three tries, Salah himself had a few, while Luis Diaz sliced in from the left to deliver a right foot shot at Geronimo Rulli, who unconvinced on the second try.
Liverpool’s movement was incessant and multifaceted, with Diaz chasing up and down the left wing but also falling inside, Jordan Henderson often playing on the shoulder of the last line of defense and Trent Alexander-Arnold popping up in the number 10 position to win a free-kick from a distance of 25 meters, which he hits into the wall.
A move nearly produced one of the goals of the season as the superb Thiago Alexander-Arnold sprayed yet another 50-yard diagonal from left to right to score for the first time in Salah’s run, whose own volley went over the goal went.
And despite reaching the break without a goal – Villarreal’s only chance when Tottenham loanee Giovani Lo Celso missed a long-range free-kick from Dani Parejo – there never seemed to be a breakthrough.
Five minutes after the break, Fabinho forced the ball in only to be flagged for offside and Diaz weakly headed Rulli before a stroke of luck put the opener in the 53rd minute.
In a fluid movement that started near the center line on Andy Robertson’s left and involved Thiago and Mane, Salah finished with Henderson scoring wide on the right.
The England international went for a cross to the far post, only for the ball to deflect off Estupinan and fly over the keeper and into the far post.
It was luck they needed, one quickly becoming two as Alexander-Arnold combined with Salah on the edge of the box and slid a perfectly weighted pass for Mane past Rulli.
At that point there seemed to be a question of just how much of a lead Liverpool hoped to bring to Spain next week when Robertson slammed home Alexander-Arnold’s cross only to be ruled out for offside.
A string of substitutions followed, however, as Klopp switched his players with a kick-off at Newcastle on Saturday midday to reflect while his side’s quest for an unprecedented quadruple continues with a return to the Premier League.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/soccer/champions-league/liverpool-take-big-step-towards-champions-league-final-as-second-half-double-secures-win-over-villarreal-41594691.html Liverpool take a big step towards the Champions League final as the second-half double secures victory over Villarreal