“You suffer and then …”, Jürgen Klopp clicked his fingers: “… you react.”
It may not have been quite that simple, nor quite so instantaneous, and it certainly wasn’t as effortless as that, but as it turned out Liverpool’s manager wasn’t far off in his prediction.
Oh, they had suffered, that was for sure, and they had reacted too. Not so much a click of the fingers, perhaps, as a fist on the red button. The decision too, made in the dressing room at half-time: life is different with Luis Díaz, not least because he is different. And so when it all started up again, there he was. They had needed him.
When the half-time whistle went, the Cerámica rose and started to chant: “Yes, we can!” It wasn’t the first time they had done – those words had appeared every so often from the very start – but this time they really meant it: 2-0 up on the night, the aggregate score 2-2 and the game in their grip, Villarreal were on the cusp of something special, another absurd achievement for the team that the Super League would have left behind and that had dignified the Champions League like no one else.
Juventus, Bayern … and Liverpool? Those three clubs have 14 European Cups between them. Villarreal didn’t even have a final, but it was closer now than it had ever been, a roll call of the continent’s biggest clubs defeated en route. Only, much as Liverpool were two goals down for the first time, they weren’t defeated yet and, as Unai Emery had warned, this is a side that can hurt you a thousand ways.
“There is no perfect script,” Pau Torres had said, but there was and this was it, better even than they had planned, still less dared to believe.
Maybe it was too good? “I look at Villarreal and think, ‘What would I do?’ Two-nil down, maybe you didn’t play your best football. Give it a go. That’s exactly what Villarreal will do. They will go for it, ”Klopp had said, another prediction proven correct.
It had all the seeds so unlikely. Liverpool hadn’t been beaten by more than two goals all season and even the atmosphere didn’t seem conducive to a comeback. A biblical storm had rumbled overnight and all day, rivers in the streets, supporters scurrying for shelter as much as they were singing in the streets. Rarely can the minutes before a European semi-final have felt like less of an occasion, Villarreal’s president Fernando Roig saying he worried that the weather might “take something away from this”.
Even if Villarreal were to turn it round, the plan always seemed to set to be a cautious one. Emery had talked about needing to be “brutal defensively”. Torres had said that one goal would put them in it and insisted: “If it doesn’t matter if that comes in the first minute or the 6oth.” Instead, it came after just three. The second followed after 41, that quiet blown away, belief flooding through them, the noise making this a special night, even ultimately in defeat.
Villarreal overran Liverpool, the intensity that had inhibited them before matched now. This was the perfect storm, the rain pouring around them no longer noticed in the stands, too much fun for that.
Francis Coquelin, supposedly a defensive midfielder, was dashing behind the full-backs. Dani Parejo was taking control. Gerard Moreno, absent at Anfield, all clever touches.
Albiol brought the ball out. Étienne Capoue delivered two wonderfully subtle moments to deliver the two goals, the first scored by Boulaye Dia, the second by Coquelin.
That was the good news for Villarreal. The bad news was that they had done so much so fast that, like Liverpool, they had a decision to make. Maybe it had been too fast? Level now, they had something to lose, something to hold. The second half would suggest that they might have chosen unwisely or perhaps – a simple fact so often, so easily forgotten – this was more about the team they had in front of them. The team that, led by Díaz, some footballing Sonic the Hedgehog, now tore into them.
There was also, it may be as cruel to mention as it would be unrealistic not to, the goalkeeper that stood behind them. Suddenly activated, with Trent Alexander ‑ Arnold let loose, Mané moving into the middle, that whole red machine moving forward, faster and faster, Liverpool hit Villarreal three times in 12 minutes. Twice the ball went into the net through Gerónimo Rulli’s legs, once he honored his name by charging from his goal to leave it unguarded.
In a flash, a click of the fingers, it was gone. The reaction was ruthless and it was complete.
Rulli, the man whose penalty save and penalty scored had taken Villarreal to the Europa League title last season, allowing them to reach the Champions League in the first place, crouched looking lost. Behind him, the Cerámica applauded, broken but proud. As it turned out, no, they couldn’t but for a moment they had really thought they would. They had come a long way.
“How could I not love you when you made me win in Europe for the first time?” the supporters sang, as the final moments played out and liverpool headed to paris, seeking their seventh.