Liverpool set course for Champions League final after Villarreal win

Liverpool: Liverpool look like being one European giant too many for Villarreal.

A third Champions League final in five seasons is in sight for the English club after a 2-0 win in the first leg of the semi-finals on Wednesday (Thursday AEST), secured after an own goal by Pervis Estupinan and a poked finish by Sadio Mane in a two-minute span early in the second half.

Villarreal’s fairytale run in the competition might be coming to an end. A team sitting in seventh place in the Spanish league and filled with players who failed to make it in England somehow managed to eliminate European royalty in Juventus and Bayern Munich in the knockout stage.

Liverpool, still on course for an unprecedented quadruple of major trophies, were an even bigger step up and easily overcame the limited challenge of Villarreal.

Still, it took the six-time European champions some time to make the breakthrough.

The goals came in a span of 133 seconds from the 53rd, when Jordan Henderson’s cross from the right deflected off the outstretched boot of Estupinan and looped over goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, who flapped at the ball and could only turn it into the net.

The power of Anfield on European nights tends to turn one goal quickly into two, and that’s what transpired again.

Trent Alexander-Arnold fed a pass inside to Mohamed Salah and his slide-rule ball in behind the defense was latched onto by Mane, who toe-poked past Rulli with a sliding finish.

The second leg takes place on Tuesday and only a major surprise will prevent Villarreal from bowing out at the semi-final stage, just like in 2006.

Liverpool are looking to win Europe’s biggest prize for the second time in four years, having also reached the final in 2018 under manager Jurgen Klopp.

Manchester City take a 4-3 lead over Real Madrid into the second leg of their semi-final in Spain next Wednesday.

They are a very organised team and we knew they would make it difficult. It was just important that we kept going and believed that we would eventually break them down. We did that with two good goals, said Henderson.

Majority of the game, our counter-press was really good. It made it difficult for them. But the game is still alive and it will be tough in Villarreal.

A sea of yellow-clad Villarreal fans — at 5000 in number, they amounted to almost 10 per cent of the population of the town in eastern Spain — swarmed their way from Liverpool city centre to Anfield ahead of the game. And a rendition of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, which is the nickname of the visitors, was well-received by the lively away contingent before kick-off.

That was as warm as the welcome got.

Liverpool snapped into tackles and pressed high from the first whistle, meaning Villarreal’s players hardly got out of their half all match.

Yet, with Unai Emery setting up his team with his back four screened by a deep-lying and narrow midfield four, Liverpool were initially starved of space in what quickly became tantamount to an attack v defence exercise.

There were plenty of half-chances — Mane headed wide off his face, Mohamed Salah curled over then volleyed over, and Thiago Alcantara smashed a long-range shot off the outside of the post — but Villarreal held out until half-time.

Then it all went wrong.

The two goals came in between two disallowed efforts, by Fabinho then Andrew Robertson, and it was only Liverpool’s players taking their foot off the gas that stopped an even bigger victory.

Klopp used the opportunity to take a number of key players off early, with a potentially tough Premier League game against Newcastle on Saturday sandwiched between the six-day turnaround for the Villarreal games.

Liverpool in the title race, having reached the FA Cup final and already won the League Cup.

The quadruple charge is heading deep into May.

AP

Watch football’s biggest superstars in the , and on Stan Sport. Coverage returns for the Semi-Finals next week with Villarreal v Liverpool (Wednesday 4:35am AEST) and Real Madrid v Manchester City (Thursday 4:35am AEST). All matches streaming ad-free, live and on demand only on .

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