From Thiago pulling the strings to Sadio Mane scoring his sixth goal in seven games, there were positives galore for Liverpool in their 2-0 win over Villarreal on another big night for Jurgen Klopp‘s men.
The Reds cruised to victory in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final tie, bossing possession and proving to be worthy winners after breaking Villarreal’s resolve in the second half.
In front of a raucous Anfield crowd, Liverpool kept their quadruple dream firmly alive ahead of the second leg as this incredible football team continue a potentially legendary season.
Here, This Is Anfield’s Henry Jackson (@HenryJackson87) is joined by Dan Clubbe (@dan_clubbe) and Liam Togher (@liamtogher88) to dissect the win and discuss where the majestic Thiago ranks among the Reds’ midfield greats.
DAN: The sheer ease with which Liverpool controlled proceedings stood out for me.
Although it was expected Villarreal would employ the same tactics that had overcome Juventus and Bayern Munich previously, across all four legs of those ties they were able to create many tangible moments in attack.
Here, they were limited to next to nothing by a side that simply refused to let them have a moment’s rest from kickoff until the final whistle.
Thiago was inch-perfect all night, again. We signed the Spaniard for exactly this type of occasion and he stamped his authority on a European semi-final in style.
His fingerprints were all across this performance and he was unfortunate not to open the scoring with what would’ve been a stunner.
Ibrahima Konate. Just when you think a 22-year-old’s debut season couldn’t get any more impressive he produces that display.
The Frenchman was relatively untested in a last-ditch sense alongside Virgil van Dijk, but even the slightest sense of danger was dealt with at source, in what was a faultless evening’s work.
I should also give mention to Fabinho, who was monstrous at the base of the midfield, as well as Andy Robertson, who is arguably enjoying his best personal spell of the entire campaign right now and seems to be the one embracing the possibility of what is up for grabs over the next few weeks.
LIAM: Ask any Liverpool fan if they would have taken 2-0 at that start of the night and surely they would have said yes.
It’s a commanding position to hold going over to Spain and was a fair reflection of just how much we dominated Villarreal.
Even at half-time, when it looked like a classic case of inferior opposition frustrating their way to a result, there was no sense of panic from Liverpool, but rather a calm persistence that ultimately paid off.
In terms of individual performances, Luis Diaz was an irrepressible ball of energy once again, Fabinho was a Trojan in the modified engine room and as for Thiago…breathtaking.
HENRY: I echo what the other lads have said here – they’ve covered all the positives to perfection.
I was delighted with the patience Liverpool showed, with the game so similar to Everton on Sunday, in terms of Villarreal’s approach and it being 0-0 at half-time.
The fact that I felt disappointed we didn’t score a third – in a tough Champions League semi-final! – shows how special this team is.
Thiago was the clear standout for me, but I agree that Fabinho was also a monstrous presence, while Dan is spot on about Robertson having the bit between his teeth.
A shoutout for Mane, too, who I criticised a lot earlier in the season, but has returned to top form, taking his goal brilliantly and excelling in his new central role.
DAN: It’s difficult not to be extremely content going into next week, not only with the two-goal cushion but also with the way in which the game panned out.
While I will never say the tie is over, Villarreal will have to offer more in the way of attacking threat in Spain and that will only leave more space for what is a rampant Liverpool side right now
Although it’s still important to remain grounded and indeed proceed with caution into the second leg, in truth, if we were to score first at El Madrigal, we are essentially just the mere formalities away from the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and a baguette.
LIAM: Don’t start booking the travel arrangements for Paris just yet, but we are in a very strong position to advance for sure.
There’s an assurance to this Liverpool team which suggests that we will finish the job next week, although it’s worth remembering how we had two-goal first-leg leads against Inter and Benfica and made hard work of getting through against both of those.
I’m very confident we’ll be in the final; let’s just try to avoid any unnecessary scares, though!
HENRY: It’s impossible not to think Liverpool haven’t got more than one foot in the final, given their superiority over Villarreal.
If one club are proof that crazy things can happen in the Champions League, though, it’s the Reds!
They should use Istanbul and the Barcelona game in 2019 as inspiration for not falling foul of a European comeback, instead getting the job done without any drama.
El Madrigal will be bouncing and it wouldn’t surprise me if Villarreal made a strong start, perhaps even scoring, but I’m backing Liverpool to ease to Paris in the end.
I’m just hoping it’s a repeat of the 1981 final against Real Madrid there, because I simply can’t stomach facing Man City!
And where does “genius” Thiago rank?
DAN: As I’ve already mentioned, this was a performance right out of the top drawer from a man who oozes pure unadulterated class – one of many in recent weeks.
Deemed as some kind of luxury player when first signed and even criticised in certain quarters for an inability to play without central defenders, Thiago has silenced every single doubter and some.
Not only is he one of the greatest manipulators of a football I’ve ever seen, but it’s the way in which he clearly gets so much joy out of running games at the very highest level.
With the passing range of Xabi Alonso, the tackling of Javier Mascherano and the eye for the spectacular of Steven Gerrard, he is the perfect specimen of a midfielder with a little bit of everything all rolled up into one.
Overall, it’s hard to compare him with some of the greatest ever to do it for the Reds due to the relatively small sample size, but one thing I can say with confidence is that he is an absolute pleasure to watch and we are incredibly blessed as supporters to have him at the football club.
I also cannot stress enough how important that man is going to be in all our lives between now and June.
LIAM: A metronome. A genius. A wizard. Honestly, the relationship this man has with a football is something special.
It isn’t just a case of him stat-padding with five-yard passes to make his numbers look good, either.
Thiago initiates so much of our attacking movement with an inch-perfect switch of the play and an unerring ability to find gaps that others just don’t see, never mind have the ability to exploit.
Whatever we do go on to win this season, this man will have been as big a part of it as the prolific Mo Salah or the mercurial Virgil van Dijk.
HENRY: As Dan says, longevity makes it hard to compare Thiago with others.
What I will say is that in 28 years or so of being an avid Liverpool fan, he is the second-most gifted midfielder I have seen play for the club, after Gerrard.
His technical ability is outrageous, picking passes that most players can’t even see, and he does it all with such unbelievable grace.
What makes Thiago extra special is that none of it is for show – he isn’t Paul Pogba, looking graceful but ultimately flattering to deceive week in, week out.
Off the ball, he is tenacious, making endless tackles, and he is both a great team player and a born winner. He has a fire in his eyes.
I adored Alonso and Mascherano, while Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum have all been wonderful servants, too, but Gerrard is the only one of Thiago in my lifetime.
That’s not to say he has contributed as much as those mentioned yet, but he gets me off my seat more than them and is a better footballer.
Staying fit has been the one problem throughout his career, but if he does between now and the end of the season, anything feels possible.