‘Feels like it’s the first final’
Fifty-seven games into a gruelling season Liverpool could have crumbled when their 2-0 first-leg lead was wiped out before half-time by an inspired Villarreal playing to reach their first-ever Champions League final.
Instead, the Reds will be in European club football’s showpiece occasion for the third time in five seasons after they hit back to win Tuesday’s game 3-2 and progress from the semi-final 5-2 on aggregate.
“Before the game I told the boys that I would like to read the headlines that ‘the mentality monsters were in town’,” said beaming Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
Liverpool’s Luis Diaz (left) scores a goal against Villarreal
Liverpool’s rich tradition in the European Cup was born in the 1970s and 1980s, when they won the trophy four times as the dominant force in the English game.
“It feels like it’s the first [final] to be honest, because it is always so special,” said Klopp. “It is, for me, the best club competition in the world.”
Six games now separate Klopp’s men from an achievement never before achieved in English football—winning all four major trophies on offer in the same season.
The League Cup is already in the trophy cabinet after Liverpool beat Chelsea on penalties in the final in February, with a rematch of that game to come in the FA Cup final on May 14. Liverpool’s Premier League title hopes still depend on Manchester City, who hold a one-point lead at the top of the table with four games to go.
The biggest surprise was that there was ever any doubt about Liverpool’s safe passage to Paris on May 28.
In 28 games in 2022 prior to Tuesday’s match in Spain, Klopp’s men had trailed for a total of 53 minutes. But for just short of an hour they were behind at the Estadio de la Ceramica as David threatened to slay Goliath thanks to first-half goals from Boulaye Dia and Francis Coquelin.
However, the vast gulf in resources between the clubs showed when Klopp could unleash $63 million January signing Luis Diaz at the break.
Diaz to the rescue
The Colombian, together with some generous goalkeeping from Villarreal stopper Geronimo Rulli, turned the game back in Liverpool’s favour as Fabinho, Diaz and Sadio Mane scored three goals in 12 minutes. “He’s a special, special player,” said Andy Robertson of Diaz. “The talent he has, the will he has to win. He fits us perfectly. He made a big difference.”
No. of goals Liverpool have scored in 57 games across all competitions in 2021-22—their highest in a single season
Villarreal more proud than sad after semis loss
Long after the match ended, Villarreal fans stayed on their feet cheering at the La Cerámica Stadium. There was more pride than sadness for the modest Spanish club after it came up just short of pulling off yet another upset against a European powerhouse in the Champions League.
“We were close to excellence,” Villarreal coach Unai Emery said. “We know that the fans have enjoyed it. It’s a good project that allows us to experience moments like these. We needed something extra. We ran out of strength.”
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