“Never in doubt”. It’s a three-word throwaway remark that is designed to cover a multitude of sporting sins, usually accompanied by a puffing out of the cheeks.
At halftime at El Madrigal on Wednesday night, you were fully entitled to harbour doubts about Liverpool’s continuing Champions League prospects. But whether I was experiencing footballing Zen, or simply spaced out at the way Jurgen Klopp’s side had thrown away their hard-earned first-leg advantage so cheaply during the first half, I still felt that the outcome was never in doubt.
There was no way that Liverpool could continue to offer the gifts of the first half indefinitely; even within a torrid first 45 minutes, there had been a few signs of Jurgen Klopp’s men pulling themselves together as they began to gain more prolonged possession of the ball, all be it too often punctuated by a misplaced pass or unforced error.
Yes, this was a spirited fightback by Villarreal, but you just had to cast your eye at the embarrassment of creative riches that Liverpool possesses to soon arrive at the conclusion that our chances would come, and that we would take them when we did. Given the age and fitness of some of our hosts’ key components, they wouldn’t be able to deny us space all evening.
At 2-2 on aggregate, this all felt a little bit Alaves and the 2001 UEFA Cup final. A modest, yet well run, excellently organised and hugely motivated Spanish outfit responding to being backed into a corner. There can sometimes be nothing more dangerous than a football team that feels like they have a point to prove and nothing to lose. We’ve been in those types of situations ourselves and come out fighting with the knockout punches to back up the intent.
When you throw in the ingredient that Villarreal are led by a manager that saves his best for European competition, it was never a certainty that this was a tie that was all done and dusted, not with 50 percent of it still to be played, and that habit we have of Liverpooling the life out of these types of missions.
This team of ours though. Our worst half of football of the season was followed by a masterful riposte, that was inspired by the introduction of the magnificent Luis Díaz.
At the end of the game, as Liverpool’s players and coaching staff celebrated, Diogo Jota had the arm of his manager draped around his shoulder and sage words being shouted into his ear. Our Portuguese maestro must have been dejected at being the player to make way at halftime for the man whose inspirational introduction helped so much to change the direction of proceedings.
Jota is a fabulous footballer who gives us so much, a player whose strengths are as bespoke to him as Díaz’s are to the Colombian international, and as bespoke as the strengths of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Bobby Firmino’s are to them. Sometimes it isn’t your night though, and a different option is needed. On this occasion, Díaz was the catalyst, and another day it will be Jota. Maybe Tottenham Hotspur will suffer the wrath of Jota’s frustration on Saturday night.
It wasn’t that Jota was playing poorly in individual terms, we just indulged in a collectively dysfunctional first half, which meant Villarreal needed new problems to think about after the restart. Jurgen Klopp would have been well within his rights to make multiple halftime alterations after saying “we had 11 problems,” and the shouts for Naby Keita to make way were long and loud.
Klopp resisted though, and by the time Jordan Henderson did replace Keita, Liverpool had scored their three goals. It was all about making a tweak or two tactically and reasserting our composure; there isn’t a better team on the face of the planet, and if you give us the chance to prove it then you will live to regret it. Most opponents do.
Ultimately, we had much to thank Gerónimo Rulli for, a former employee of Manchester City, and Villarreal’s hero from last season’s Europa League final win against Manchester United. An integral part in turning Unai Emery’s side into a dangerous European force, it was a forgettable second half for the Argentine international.
But the way we were moving the ball, it is hard to imagine we wouldn’t have found more orthodox ways of putting the ball past him. Even in the first half, we were clipping the crossbar, while if Salah rolls that opportunity into the net when Rulli collides with one of his teammates, then VAR probably gives him the goal.
An uncomfortable first half afforded us by our hosts, there was much to like about Villarreal in their approach to possession, but plenty to dislike when they were chasing the ball. Frustrations saw them earn a flurry of yellow cards and one red; they had also made a cluster of attempts to ‘win’ the visitors a few cards of their own when going easily to ground.
There was something cyclical about Klopp’s Liverpool being outplayed by an Emery-led team, before overrunning them in the second period. At the 2016 Europa League final we were taught a lesson, but now it’s us who are putting the footballing curriculum together.
On to Paris we go, with routes planned within minutes of the final whistle, hotels booked before the adrenalin had abated. We are three and a half weeks away from the Champions League final, yet there are two other trophies up for grabs before we embrace the Stade de France.
What times we are living. Up the Reds.