Liverpool took control of their Champions League semi-final by producing a dominant performance to beat Villarreal 2-0 in the first leg at Anfield.
Villarreal came with a game plan to frustrate Jurgen Klopp’s side and it worked for 45 minutes, with Thiago Alcantara’s long-range strike against the post the closest they came. But the home team could not be kept out for long, with Pervis Estupinan’s unlucky own goal and Sadio Mane’s stabbed finish coming inside two second-half minutes to ease any nerves.
Liverpool maintained a firm grip on the game, with Villarreal failing to trouble Alisson with a single shot on target, but they could not add any further gloss to the win. However, they will head to Spain next week confident of getting the job done and reaching next month’s final.
It was a near perfect night for Klopp. Here are four things he got right on the big occasion at Anfield.
Villarreal have thrived off their underdog status. Despite winning the Europa League last season, the Spanish side are constantly belittled, with statistics about the population of the town (around 50,000 people), their place in La Liga (seventh) and lack of a long history in European competition often trotted out.
Thankfully for Liverpool, Klopp was having none of it. "Maybe Juve or maybe Bayern underestimated them," he said in his pre-match press conference. "But that will never happen to us and especially after those four games against Juventus and Bayern there's no chance of that anymore. So, this little advantage they had might have gone but they're still a really, really good football team who obviously want to make history as well."
Being ruthless in selection
Liverpool have a deep and hugely competitive squad. The team are on a roll, still in pursuit of four competitions. Selection is difficult, but the German boss was not swayed from his game plan. “I could have lined up 10 other players, no problem,” he told BT Sport pre-match. “They all show up, all want to play, but that is the line-up tonight.”
Klopp was not tempted to start Naby Keita, Joel Matip or Diogo Jota, or to stick in Divock Origi after his impact against Everton on the weekend. The latter decision is something that got Michael Owen’s back up. "If I was a centre-forward and I came on so many times to save my manager, yet he never played me and he only brought me on occasionally, then I wouldn’t be giving the manager such a big cuddle,” he said on Premier League Productions on the weekend. “You just know how much that man means to all of those Liverpool players and how much it means to those fans."
Those were the pre-game preparations. But Klopp also got things spot-on in-game. Liverpool dominated the first half, firing in 13 shots to Villarreal’s one, while having six corners to the away side’s one. Yet they could not initially find a way past their resolute opponents, who sat extremely deep in a low block and challenged Liverpool to find a way down the sides.
Time-wasting tactics came in very early and frustration was evident in the home crowd, who might have feared that the Reds were going to draw a blank for just the fifth time in their 55th game this season.
But Klopp was not so worried. He spoke to his side at half-time, stuck with his line-up and was rewarded. Estupinan’s own goal was fortuitous, coming from Jordan Henderson's cross, but deserved and Liverpool rode their momentum to score just two minutes later through Mane. Klopp deserves credit for sticking to his guns and backing his first-choice XI to get the job done, despite the nervous atmosphere.
The main reason Liverpool were so dominant was their suffocating press. Villarreal came with a game plan to stick in behind the ball and look to make the most of any opportunities to break, using the pace of Arnaut Danjuma. Unai Emery’s side tried to play out from the back from goal-kicks but were smothered by Liverpool’s relentless condensing of space.
Liverpool’s gegenpressing is nothing new, but this was a very good example of its effects. Villarreal were completely overwhelmed – a fact which is shown nicely by a stat from half-time: goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli completed more passes – 16 – than any other Villarreal player in the first half. It didn't get any better for Villarreal in the second half either and the second leg will be an uphill battle for Emery's side.
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