Liverpool keep their heads above water to hold out Villarreal deluge

Liverpool will face either Real Madrid or Manchester City in the Champions League final

They say that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plains but the quiet little city of Villarreal saw a lot of it on one of the biggest days in their modest club’s history. A hard, thumping downpour started in the early hours of Tuesday morning and lasted practically all day, soaking El Madrigal through.

It was damp. It was wet. The roof was leaking in places. Puddles of rainwater collected on the seats. The conditions forced even Villarreal’s most vocal, boisterous supporters into faintly ridiculous yellow ponchos. That, combined with the 2-0 deficit carried over from the first leg, made for a downbeat atmosphere. But then, not long before kick-off, the skies cleared. And after that, the deluge.

The task for Villarreal at the start of the night was monumental. Liverpool had played 56 games this season, only lost three of them and never gone down by more than two goals. They had not suffered a consequential defeat since December. And what’s more, only a week ago at Anfield, they had practically washed their semi-final opponents away.

The gulf in quality between these two sides appeared unbridgeable. It certainly could not be closed if Unai Emery showed the same level of ambition as he did in the first leg. But it was always Villarreal’s intention to do more than park the bus. Emery said it himself straight after the final whistle at Anfield. His players were desperate to prove that they could play on the front foot. Few, if any, believed they would.

Yet when the rain stopped, the clouds lifted and the game started, that was exactly what they did, flooding Liverpool’s half with wave after wave of attack. A team that had managed just one shot on goal at Anfield managed double that tally within three minutes. More importantly, they scored with one of them too.

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Rarely will you see Liverpool’s defence as ramshackle as they were on Boulaye Dia’s opener, a brilliantly worked goal that came from Etienne Capoue’s cut-back of a fine Pervis Estupinan cross. Villarreal, suddenly, did not look like the cowed team that struggled at Anfield but the one that is unbeaten in 12 games at home, that had denied Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid victory here of late.

And, equally, it suddenly did not seem like Villarreal needed to beat an opponent who had only lost three in 56 and none of them by more than two goals. Liverpool looked nothing like that team whatsoever. Villarreal were the ones slicker in possession, harder in the tackle, quicker to the punch. Emery said that his players would need to produce a perfect game. When Francis Coquelin earned an unlikely but deserved parity shortly before the break, it was hard to think how their night could be going any better.

Villarreal gave their fans a performance to be proud of

The game had begun to resemble another great semi-final remontada, only this time Liverpool were cast as the Barcelona of 2019: unable to halt their opponents advances, incapable of scoring the goal that would save them. The rain had stopped but they were drowning.

Jurgen Klopp and his players were also in a strange and unfamiliar position, one they had not experienced in a while. Liverpool had barely been behind in any game since the turn of the year before this – save for just under an hour in the 2-2 draw with Manchester City – and though level on aggregate, their unrecognisable first half performance suggested that there was only one way the game was going.

Yet it is the mark of great sides that they overcome new and difficult problems quickly. And this Liverpool, undoubtedly, is a great side. A 2-0 deficit became a 3-2 lead, despite the stakes at the start of the second half being as high as they possibly could be. The level of control and composure displayed after the break was impressive, but only more impressive because of the chaos which had preceded it.

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From the moment that Fabinho’s shot from a narrow angle crept through Geronimo Rulli’s legs, Liverpool reasserted their superiority over their spirited yet limited opponents. As the waves of Villarreal attacks ebbed away, Klopp’s side found their flow. The most difficult half of their season so far was followed by one of the most straightforward. This is what the best do: they react, adapt and win anyway.

This extraordinary season will end with a Champions League final, the club’s tenth in this competition’s history – only Real, Bayern and Milan have reached more – and despite it being the first week of May, the quadruple remains a possibility, all because, just as they appeared to be sinking, they kept their heads above the rising water.

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