Liverpool didn’t need Anfield to be ‘hell’ as Villarreal were always mismatched

Villarreal were downed 2-0 at Anfield

You could tell it from the two banks of four. You could tell it from Geronimo Rulli’s panicked punches and shanked goal kicks. You could tell from the way that right from the kick-off, the yellow submarine was submerged. This was the semi-finals of the Champions League – one stop before the ultimate pinnacle of the sport – but even the unlikely semi-finalists themselves expected it to be an outright mismatch.

In one corner, six European Cups, a manager who will be remembered among the greatest of his generation and possibly the most feared forward line in world football. In the other, an organised team that had scalped Juventus and Bayern Munich and therefore could not be underestimated, but one that finished seventh in La Liga last season and remains seventh today.

And then, as if that was not enough, there was Anfield. “It is hell,” Villarreal’s Etienne Capoue said during the build-up to this semi-final, recalling his days in English football. “You have to say it how it is. It’s hell. It’s the worst stadium I’ve been to in England… They want to knock you out. They don’t care what or who is in front of them. They just want to kill everyone and that’s it.”

As one of several former Premier League players among Unai Emery’s squad of unlikely semi-finalists, you imagine that Capoue knows a 3pm kick-off against Watford has a substantially different feel to nights like these. It is fair to say that Anfield is not always as rambunctious for your common and garden domestic fixture when compared to the mystique of a European occasion. If he was intimidated then, how might he feel now?

The cliché of “great European nights” on this ground is also a truism, and if it has taken hold anywhere beyond these shores, it is in Spanish football. Back in 2009, before Real Madrid’s 4-0 defeat in a last-16 tie, Marca ran the headline “This is Anfield… so what?” There is a great deal more respect and even anxiety nowadays, bordering on fear and intimidation. Watch one of their late night Spanish chat shows and you will see. A corner taken quickly may have something to do with it.

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That is all despite the fact that Spanish clubs are responsible for Liverpool’s last four European exits – Real twice, Atletico and Sevilla once each – but then again, two of those were finals at neutral venues. Real survived the away leg of last year’s quarters with a goalless draw but only Atletico can claim to have conquered Anfield since it regained its lost European lustre under Jurgen Klopp. To have a realistic chance of reaching Paris, Villarreal would have to do the same.

Yet unlike those others, nothing was expected of them. This is a team from a town that, as everyone surely knows by now, has a population a few thousand short of this ground’s capacity. When your very place in the last four is a surprise, anything else beyond that is a bonus. And if Emery’s side had one thing going in their favour, it is that they were naturally set up to withstand the intensity that visitors to Anfield inevitably must endure.

Villarreal fans turned out in force but saw their team outclassed

For a frantic, tetchy first half that slipped through Liverpool’s fingers like sand, Capoue and team-mates had a simple maxim: when you’re going through hell, keep going. And Villarreal kept going. They kept throwing bodies in front of shots. Rulli kept electing to punch the ball rather than catch it but get it away and clear all the same. For all Liverpool’s toil and sweat, there was not a lot in the way of clear-cut chances. Emery’s side faced down an increasingly agitated Anfield, as their team ran out of time to make the most of their home advantage.

When Fabinho saw a goal disallowed at the start of the second half, the relief around Anfield turned into a palpable frustration. Despite all of Liverpool’s pressure, an unlikely result for the visitors seemed possible. The expectations of a total wipeout were being tempered in real time. Chance after chance came and still, Villarreal had kept going and going until suddenly, they couldn’t.

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When Liverpool’s second through Sadio Mane followed minutes after Pervis Estupinan’s own goal had broken the deadlock, Villarreal’s resistance had been truly broken. The dam did not burst from thereon. Liverpool might wish they were travelling to Castellon next Tuesday with a greater advantage than just the two goals. Their dominance probably deserved it. Equally, Villarreal’s stubbornness is probably worthy of the sliver of hope they have left.

It is just that sliver, though. The truth is that of all the advantages Liverpool held over opponents, Anfield was probably the least of them. This did not need to be a great European night on this ground. They often don’t anymore. When you have 19 shots on goal and allow your opponents only one, the noise and the atmosphere and the magic of the occasion does not move the margins. Liverpool did not have to put their visitors through hell. Villarreal always had a snowball’s chance.

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