The Warm Down: Fabinho, Díaz and Mané fire Liverpool to 3-2 comeback win
Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

It certainly had to be worked for, but the testing nature of Tuesday night perhaps emphasised the significance of the achievement that bit more.

A third Champions League final in five seasons for the Reds is some going.

They’ll now be aiming to lift that trophy for the second time in four seasons – and the seventh time in the club’s history – when they travel to the French capital, and the Stade de France, in a little over three weeks’ time.

It’s certainly not the kind of opportunity that comes easily, as this thrilling return match demonstrated.

The Anfield first leg last Wednesday saw Pervis Estupiñán’s 53rd-minute own-goal and Mané’s effort moments later earn a dominant Liverpool a 2-0 aggregate lead, while the La Liga outfit failed to register a shot on-target.

There was a recognition amongst many that the second leg would represent a different challenge, but Villarreal were genuinely superb for the opening 45 minutes.

The steep-sided Estadio de la Cerámica was a colourful, vocal setting as the Yellow Submarine raced into a 1-0 lead on the night in the third minute when Boulaye Dia converted Étienne Capoue’s clever cut-back.

And Capoue was provider in the 41st minute too as his invitingly flighted cross was headed neatly into the top-left corner by Francis Coquelin, making it 2-2 on aggregate.

They arguably operated against Liverpool as effectively as any team has this season during that first half, as the Premier League side struggled to find any rhythm – especially in possession – and were regularly, uncharacteristically, beaten to second balls by their hosts.

The visitors responded impressively after the restart, though. Diogo Jota made way for Díaz, which added that bit more unpredictability to the frontline, while the wider work of the team also became notably more efficient.

Fabinho, after being played into the box by a clever Salah pass, fired a low effort through the legs of goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli and into the net to regain the aggregate lead in the 62nd minute.

Five minutes after that, Díaz also nutmegged the goalkeeper as he headed home a brilliantly flighted Trent Alexander-Arnold cross.

And Mané completed the comeback on the night – and the 5-2 aggregate victory – as he raced onto a 74th-minute Naby Keïta pass, rounded Rulli, who’d raced well out of his 18-yard box, and rolled home a left-footed finish.

Capoue was dismissed in the closing minutes after a foul on substitute Curtis Jones earned him a second yellow card, but this remained a tie that felt like it had reflected positively on both teams and both clubs.

 

Game of two halves

A cliché that feels hard to avoid in relation to this particular 90 minutes.

The contrast between the opening and closing 45 was immensely stark, on several levels.

Emery’s side pressed, harried, disrupted and played with considerable efficiency and genuine threat throughout most of the first half. It felt a challenge, on several occasions, for Liverpool work their way coherently out of their own half.

The Reds’ uncharacteristic sloppiness admittedly did them few favours on that front and played into the hands of the Spanish side, but Villarreal ought to take some credit for that too.

Plenty of these errors felt, at least in part, enforced by the pressure being applied and work being put in by those in yellow.

The visitors responded impressively after the restart, though.

They imposed themselves considerably more effectively, steadily found a better rhythm and began to pin Villarreal back.

The hosts did appear to consciously drop off and play more passively in the second period. It seemed a puzzling approach given the effectiveness of their earlier tactics, although it may have been an understandable attempt to maintain energy levels, soak up pressure and then threaten on the counter.

Either way, Liverpool capitalised on that context.

They were much more recognisable in the second half as they increasingly controlled the tempo and created several chances on top of their three goals.

Goals which saw them become the first team to win all six of their away matches within a Champions League campaign, having overcome FC Porto, Atlético Madrid and AC Milan during the group stage, and Internazionale and Benfica in the round of 16 and quarter-finals respectively.

 

Dazzling Díaz

A considerable part of the second-half turnaround was the introduction of Díaz at half-time.

The Colombian international was familiarly effervescent, direct and dangerous on the left flank.

Prior to his goal, and either side of Fabinho’s, he acrobatically volleyed a Mané cross over and saw a right-footed attempt strike the post, via a deflection off Raúl Albiol, after he weaved brilliantly into the box.

His goal was nicely converted with his head and was well-deserved – as could be said for his Player of the Match award from UEFA.

Another demonstration, almost in microcosm, of how well he has hit the ground running – and the excellent impact he is continuing to make – at Anfield since his January arrival from Porto.

 

Plenty to play for

A third final of the season for Liverpool, then. It is some achievement and means that the Reds will have played 63 matches across all competitions by the end of 2021/22 – the maximum number of games they could have played when they kicked-off this campaign.

A marker of squad depth. A marker of continuing progress. Something to appreciate and to be genuinely excited about.

Six matches remain now.

Four in the Premier League – where they sit just a point behind leaders Manchester City – with the first of those coming against Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Saturday night.

The FA Cup final – where they will meet Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday 14th May, in a repeat of February’s Carabao Cup decider which Klopp’s team won on penalties.

And the Champions League final, two weeks later, at the Stade de France. Whether their opponents are City or Real Madrid, it looks an enticing prospect.

As do these coming weeks.

One trophy won. The chance to potentially win three more.

Every game looks full of opportunity.

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