It was a forgettable European night for Liverpool as they fell 1-0 late to Villarreal in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final tie with the Spanish outfit.
Jürgen Klopp came under scrutiny for his decision to leave out in-form Daniel Sturridge, instead preferring Roberto Firmino to lead the line.
The manager would later say this change was for stability in the formation, but the choice was poor as the Reds failed to secure a precious away goal. Of course, this criticism would be moot had it been for a momentary lapse in concentration.
It was Kolo Touré who was chosen to fill in for Mamadou Sakho, who had been banned for 30 days by UEFA as they opened proceedings over his failed drug test. He was tasked with the job of handle Cédric Bakambu, the second highest scorer this Europa League season. Lucas Leiva played deep in the midfield to offer support to the Ivorian defender.
In the first half, Liverpool were consistently losing the battle in the midfield as the hosts effectively shutdown Philippe Coutinho. The Reds struggled to create chances without their Brazilian playmaker, who made way for Jordon Ibe at half time due to illness.
Joe Allen had a chance early on, but failed to place his shot beyond the reach of Sergio Asenjo. Nathaniel Clyne and Adam Lallana combined on the right hand side to send the ball into the box. Allen came striding onto the ball unmarked before firing straight into Asenjo’s hands.
Both sides played conservatively as to not concede. Villarreal sat back and soaked up the pressure, breaking hard and fast when Liverpool carelessly surrendered possession. Their best chance came from a careless turnover by Lucas that lead to a curling effort from Tomás Pina that Simon Mignolet did well to keep out.
Reds left to rue reserved approach after late lapse of concentration
The second half offered much of the same, Liverpool’s offense became mundane and predictable. The attack kept coming down the right side as Juame Costa was more attack-minded than defensive, leaving the Yellow Submarine vulnerable on many occasion. Despite smart runs from Firmino, the Brazilian was unable to create any real threats for the visitors.
Christian Benteke was brought into the match late on as Klopp was resigned to holding onto the scorless draw. The change was a defensive one as Benteke had more to offer defensively on set pieces than Firmino. However, Benteke would have no real role to play in the closing minutes
Liverpool were on their way to a routine scoreless draw before Adrian Lopez scored late to send the Madrigal into a frenzy. The Porto-loaned forward simply had to hit the ball into an open net as Denis Suarez drew Mignolet out before squaring up for Adrian. It was a gutting sucker punch given how solid Liverpool had defended for 90 minutes.
It was clear that Liverpool had no intentions of leaving El Madrigal with a victory, instead hoping not to concede with Sturridge on the bench. The late goal may have shattered that tactic, but Liverpool proved that they were capable of keeping the Yellow Submarine at bay.
Despite being down after the first leg, Liverpool still have plenty to fight for at Anfield, and the Reds have every chance of turning it around in their march to a first European final in nine years in Basel next month.