Liverpool put one foot in a landmark 10th European Cup final – a fifth in the Champions League era – with a commanding 2-0 win over Villarreal at Anfield in the first leg of their semi-final.
A freak own goal from Pervis Estupinan and a neat Sadio Mane finish within just a couple of second-half minutes of each other proved to be decisive.
Mane went close to breaking the deadlock early on but misdirected his header from Mohamed Salah’s cross wide of the goal. Luis Diaz also forced a save and fumble from Geronimo Rulli that the Villarreal goalkeeper quickly recovered.
The attacking momentum remained with Liverpool throughout and Rulli had to parry another Diaz strike fired in from the left at the half hour mark. Raul Albiol was then on hand to ensure no Liverpool player could turn the ball into the net in the immediate aftermath. Within moments, Albiol had deflected a Mane effort agonisingly wide of the post. Giovani Lo Celso also blocked from Salah.
Liverpool thought the breakthrough had come in the closing stages of the first half when Thiago unleashed a fierce shot from distance. But the ball smacked the post and bounced clear.
Anfield briefly erupted a few minutes after half-time when Fabinho turned in a knock-down from Virgil van Dijk, but the Dutchman was offside and the flag went up straightaway.
Having waited patiently for a goal, two came in quick succession. The opener wasn’t a pretty one, but Liverpool did well to engineer the chance, Thiago in particular beating his man and switching it. Jordan Henderson’s cross took a deflection off Estupinan and Rulli could only flap as is went over his head.
The second was nicer to look at, finished well by Mane beyond the onrushing Rulli after Salah drove into the box and played his colleague in through the legs of Pau Torres.
Liverpool did soon ripple the net again through Andrew Robertson, who was quite a way offside, while Rulli was almost wrongfooted by a speculative power drive from Virgil van Dijk.
With a comfortable lead to take to north east Spain next week, the Reds didn’t need to force the issue any further and also successfully stifled any chance of a Villarreal fightback on the night.
GK: Alisson – 6/10 – Social media joked all night how much of a spectator he was. Might as well have been sat in the Kop.
RB: Trent Alexander-Arnold – 7/10 – Villarreal marshalled him well, in the first half, often forcing him inside onto his weaker left foot. Grew into things after half-time.
CB: Ibrahima Konate – 6/10 – Enjoyed a comfortable night, with Villarreal unable to mount any meaningful attacks.
CB: Virgil van Dijk – 6/10 – Took a first half booking for a body check on Samuel Chukwueze. Almost scored a screamer.
LB: Andrew Robertson – 6/10 – Had the ball in net but was well offside.
CM: Jordan Henderson – 7/10 – Won’t get direct credit for the opening goal but he played a crucial part in this win because of it.
CM: Fabinho – 8/10 – Another Liverpool player to see a goal disallowed by an offside flag – correctly, mind. Broke up play in midfield really well.
CM: Thiago Alcantara – 8/10 – His guile and vision made the first goal possible as he beat his man with a body swerve and moved the ball wide.
RF: Mohamed Salah – 8/10 – Involved in creating both goals, registering a direct assist for the second with a neat through ball.
ST: Sadio Mane – 7/10 – Couldn’t get his angles right for an early header but made up for it with a good finish to double the lead. Looked unhappy to be taken off with almost 20 minutes left.
LF: Luis Diaz – 7/10 – Gave Juan Foyth no respite and brought somewhat unconvincing saves out of Rulli in the Villarreal goal.
SUB: Naby Keita (72′ for Henderson) – 6/10
SUB: Diogo Jota (73′ for Mane) – 5/10
SUB: Joe Gomez (81′ for Alexander-Arnold) – 6/10
SUB: Divock Origi (81′ for Diaz) – 5/10