No pause for thought as Villarreal run into relentless Red hurricane | Jonathan Liew
Van Dijk to Konaté back to Van Dijk to Thiago and in a flash Thiago’s gone and he gives it to Fabinho Fabinho to Robertson and he’s running oh God he’s running and Díaz is making the run Henderson is making the run you see Salah out of the corner of your eye but Robertson is cutting inside and there’s a big space between Juan and Pau so you close it but now Mané is free and Robertson crosses Díaz goes for it plus some other red shirt is that Mané and the ball runs out for a goal-kick and breathe you can finally breathe. Oh Christ, is that Jota getting ready to come on?
This, insofar as you can even express it, is the experience of facing Liverpool at their best: football without punctuation marks or pause for thought, a dizzying stream of consciousness, a quickfire interrogation that you can barely process, let alone begin to follow. It took 16 years for Villarreal to reach their second Champions League semi-final and a little over two minutes for them to lose it. In all likelihood it may have felt even quicker than that: just a concussive blur of red streaks, the sound of triumphant songs and the taste of blood rising from your lungs, the sensation of being a long way from home and completely out of place.
Unai Emery’s team did almost everything right here. They were physical, disciplined, organised and clear in their strategy. Against an ordinary team, it would probably have been good enough. And for 45 minutes here, Liverpool were pretty ordinary. But then came the cloudburst, the rumble of thunder and the flashes of lightning, a torrent that few sides on the planet are capable of living with.
The talk before this game was of the need for a solid, workmanlike, professional Liverpool performance. Perhaps too much so. Even against smaller, weaker opponents Liverpool have always been at their best when infused with a certain piety, a sense of mission, a taste for magic. Only when they seemed to clock that this was a Champions League semi-final and not a Monday night game against Wolves did they manage to muster the required filth and fury, and two goals might conceivably have been more.
And for all the cosmetic similarities, this was a markedly different sort of game from the Merseyside derby on Sunday. Villarreal were crabby and cautious and cynical, but they also wanted the ball. Dani Parejo, Giovani Lo Celso, Étienne Capoue: these are not midfielders who are content simply to kick it away and hope for the best. Their back four was brave enough to draw opponents towards them and dribble their way out of danger. And so Villarreal’s 26% possession was less a measure of their own ambition than of Liverpool’s remorseless pressing machine.
There was a moment in the first half when Pervis Estupiñán hesitated over a throw-in and was booed by all four sides of the ground. But he wasn’t trying to waste time; he just couldn’t see a viable option amid the enclosure of red shirts. Virgil van Dijk and the increasingly impermeable Ibrahima Konaté mopped up everything at the back. And even when Villarreal did carve out a half-opening, Fabinho was there with the tackle, not just taking the ball but taking all memory of the ball, to the point where you can no longer be sure whether you ever had it.
With the back door firmly locked, the only real point of interest was whether Liverpool could find a way through. And even amid the frustrations of the first half, the percentages always seemed to be on their side. The pace was simply too high, the shots raining in from all angles. The deflected cross from Jordan Henderson that gave Liverpool their first goal was simply a numerical inevitability: if you’re playing 291 passes into the final third, chances are you’re going to get a lucky break from one of them.
Exactly 133 seconds later, Mohamed Salah was playing in Sadio Mané to make victory secure. And even if it took them most of the game to find their rhythm, there was a security and certainty to Liverpool here that stands in subtle contrast to many of their recent European campaigns. From Chelsea to Olympiakos, Milan in 2005 to Barcelona in 2019, so many of Liverpool’s European triumphs have been built on daring raids against the odds. Frontrunning has rarely come as easily to them, but these days Liverpool are the pacesetters, the frontrunners, the throne. The fans no longer flock to Anfield in hope but in expectation. This was another sign that Jürgen Klopp’s side are no longer bowing to that expectation, but living and thriving on it.
And yes, this tie may only be half-done. But even with the benefit of home advantage, you feel that for Villarreal the memories of this waking ordeal will simply be too vivid and powerful. For all their stirring progress through this year’s competition, here they looked like exactly what they were: a small-town club in the jaws of an ungodly hurricane.