Anfield has been revitalised by Klopp, and the manager turned cheerleader after the final whistle to whip up celebrations from all four sides of the stadium. He has had the same effect on Liverpool’s players. The club’s 200th win in European competition was achieved in commanding, comfortable style as a Bruno Soriano own goal quickly levelled the tie on aggregate before Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana capped a dominant semi-final display.
“It will be much more difficult for Villarreal than they imagine in this moment,” Klopp had said on the eve of the second leg. But it was Liverpool’s tactics, industry and quality that caused the fourth best team in Spain to fold. Lallana, Emre Can, Roberto Firmino and Dejan Lovren, to name just four players who have improved immeasurably under Klopp, excelled in following their manager’s instruction to play “emotional football while using your brain”. The result is a second final only seven months into the Klopp era and the Premier League’s first representation in the Europa League final since Chelsea’s victory under Rafael Benítez in 2013. What a pity therefore, or more accurately a disgrace, that the finalists receive merely 10,000 tickets apiece for the showdown in Basel.
Klopp was thumping his chest during the warm-up, such was the intensity of the occasion. The atmosphere was charged not only by the frenzied welcome that the Liverpool team bus received as it inched along Anfield Road but also last week’s verdicts from the Hillsborough inquests. A mosaic reading “96 – The Greatest Football Family” covered three sides of the ground before the first home game since it was concluded the 96 were unlawfully killed. The night fulfilled Anfield’s expectations.
Liverpool tore into Villarreal from the start, gave them no time to build from the back or through their assured captain, Soriano, and punished them to level the tie inside eight minutes. It helped that Marcelino’s bizarre rotation policy with his goalkeepers resulted in Alphonse Aréola starting in place of Sergio Asenjo. His unconvincing opening spread almost as much anxiety through the visiting defence as Liverpool’s front four.
Poor crossing undermined Liverpool in the first leg, Klopp had claimed, but the flaw was remedied quickly in the return. The fit-again Can released Nathaniel Clyne and when his dangerous cross arrowed in from the right, Aréola parried the ball into the path of Firmino. It was the second of three slips by the Villarrealkeeper in the opening 10 minutes. Firmino turned the ball back into a crowded six-yard area where Sturridge failed to connect cleanly but his effort struck Soriano and sailed over the line.
Villarreal were visibly unnerved. They were dangerous when they broke out but were rarely able to do so. Simon Mignolet saved well from Mario Gasper and Jonathan Dos Santos blazed over when Cédric Bakambu’s run presented him with an excellent chance seconds before the opener. But with Adam Lallana relentless in his pressing – the watching Dirk Kuyt would have been impressed – Can and James Milner dominant in central midfield and with Firmino a constant distraction, Villarreal could not disrupt Liverpool’s control.
The one concern for Klopp at half-time, and hope for Marcelino, was the aggregate scoreline. Liverpool had dictated the rhythm and flow of the game but remained vulnerable to the away goal without a commanding lead. It arrived moments after their manager had implored the crowd to raise their game having quietened at the start of the second half, and Firmino released Sturridge behind the Villarreal defence with a fine pass. Controlling Lallana’s cross on his chest, the Brazilian took out three yellow shirts with a first-time ball into Sturridge and the recalled striker converted off the inside of a post. His celebrations marked a release after starting the three previous Europa League ties on the bench.
Villarreal’s night deteriorated further when the defender Víctor Ruiz was sent off for a second offence. Booked for dissent in the first half, he went after a late foul on Lallana and the visitors’ exasperation increased when Alberto Moreno escaped with a push on Denis Suárez inside the Liverpool area. But they could not dispute the outcome. Firmino, having earlier deceived Mario Gasper with an outrageous trick, left Mateo Musacchio trailing to set up Sturridge at close range. The striker miscued but Lallana steered home the loose ball from a yard and was kept onside by Musacchio on the by-line. Anfield erupted, thoughts turning to Basel.
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