Liverpool are off to Paris once more for the Champions League final after a massive second-half fightback led to victory at Villarreal on Tuesday night.
Villarreal 2-3 Liverpool (2-5 agg)
Champions League Semi-Final Second Leg, El Madrigal
May 3, 2022
Goals: Dia 3′, Coquelin 41′; Fabinho 62′, Diaz 67′, Mane 74′
Worst half of the season?
Talk about timing for falling short when it matters.
The first 45 in the east of Spain was as bad as we’ve seen in 2022 and for some time beforehand, a total failure in energy, tracking runners, making challenges and winning duels.
Both goals were basically the same in terms of defensive rubbishness: not stopping the cross, not challenging the first arrival. Robbo failed to deal with either one, Virgil let the man get across him for the opener, Trent did nothing to stop Coquelin at all.
Beyond the goals, though, it was abject all around: over-hit passes from Thiago, terrible first touches from Keita, a lack of connection between any of the forwards and nobody at all able to get the ball down and take the tempo out of Villarreal’s play.
As they went in for the interval, it’s hard to say whether furious shouting or disgusted silence from Klopp would have been the more appropriate reaction.
Klopp’s calls and counters
Two of the usual three decisions couldn’t really be claimed to be a surprise from the boss pre-game, with Konate the de facto starter in Europe of late over Matip for starters.
In midfield, Henderson might have been expected to play but Keita was great at the weekend and scored – though he also played the full 90, with Hendo subbed earlier.
And up front it might have been a surprise to see Jota over Diaz, so there was certainly no shock to see the two switched at the break after an ineffective showing from the Portuguese attacker.
Many fans might have been expecting a double change at the break, or at least one in midfield due to the lack of pressure on the ball and retention in possession, but Klopp resisted.
Fab, Thiago and Naby completed just 42 passes between them in the first 45.
Whether it was more the Reds improving or the hosts sitting back after the restart, the outcome was the same: possession and control for Liverpool, our patterns of play finally emerging and a goal within 15 minutes.
And thank goodness for that.
There is no debate over Diaz
Our newest addition to the squad he might be, but he had proven it before and did so again: Luis Diaz should simply start every big game from this point.
And given the season context, that means starting pretty much all the rest of the matches from now to the campaign’s end.
There are obvious uses for Jota and it’s not a straight ‘Diaz or Jota’ conundrum; they can play together with Jota centrally, and we’ve seen Diaz be a wide right outlet too.
But whatever his role, it has to be as starter whenever possible, particularly regarding the two cup finals we have coming up.
He’s just electric: aggressive, strong, direct and capable of both scoring and creating.
Sadio hunting another accolade
There are many advocates and fans for Karim Benzema to win the Ballon d’Or, and maybe he deserves it – certainly his performances, big-game showings and goalscoring record are excellent.
That particular individual award, though, often goes to a great who may or may not have been the absolute best, but who has also won significant silverware.
Benzema has the league title wrapped up and still has a Champions League semi-final of his own to go for.
Mane though might end up with three trophies, including the Champions League, plus he has already won the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal this year too – and he has scored in the quarter-finals and both legs of the semis in Europe already.
A big showing in Paris and he might well have a huge call for his name to be on the award, potentially leading to the curious situation of one Liverpool forward being named the best player in the league, but an entirely different one being the best player on the planet.
Weekend and two more trophy shots
Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday. There’s no time for anything right now beyond preparing for the next game and making sure we’re prepped to win it.
It’s Spurs at the weekend and even if the odds are against the Reds winning the league now with Man City not slipping up at all, we’ve still got to keep the pressure on them by doing our job.
Yet again we play before them – Saturday night, Sunday afternoon – so victory puts us top and means they’d have to do the same.
Spurs are a side with their own fights still ongoing too, with a top-four spot up for grabs, so it’ll be anything but routine.
There should rightly be celebrations, of course, with the Reds reaching a third European Cup final in just five seasons – though the immediate aftermath might also be mixed in with relief after that abysmal first half.
And hey: it’s all. Still. On.