For Liverpool, a 10th European Cup final appearance beckons and a shot at winning the thing for the seventh time. It was a night when their class told, specifically the control and composure that has seen them sweep all before them since the turn of the year, raising the prospect of an unprecedented quadruple.
Never in doubt? Not exactly. The first-half had been an ordeal for Jürgen Klopp and his players, their first-leg advantage wiped out as Villarreal ran riot. They scored through Boulaye Dia and Francis Coquelin and the crazy thing was that the team that sits seventh in La Liga, the one with little experience of these kind of nights, could have had more.
How Liverpool reasserted themselves after the interval, the catalyst being Klopp’s introduction of Luis Díaz on the left. The January signing was virtually unplayable. It was as if a switch had been flicked and, sadly, the lights went out on Villarreal’s erratic goalkeeper, Geronimo Rulli.
He was beaten when Fabinho lashed in a shot from an angle, the ball seeming to go through him, which was a hammer blow for him and his team. And when he was beaten again when Diaz rose to head a Trent Alexander-Arnold through his legs, the die was cast.
Liverpool pushed to confirm their superiority and it felt like a trick of the mind that things had been so different in the first half. Sadio Mané scored the third, beating Rulli after the hapless goalkeeper had raced off his line and Liverpool might have scored more as their opponents disintegrated.
Nobody was blind to the scale of the challenge that faced Villarreal. Except perhaps those clad in yellow in the stands or the kind of waterproofs more commonly seen on trawlermen. The rain had lashed down all day. The man on the PA system was a believer. “The comeback is possible,” he yelled before the teams emerged. “Yes, we can,” roared the home support. A few pre-match statistics. They had framed so much.
Liverpool had trailed for a total of 69 minutes in matches since the turn of the year. They had kept 17 clean sheet in 28 games. They had not lost by two goals or more all season. Villarreal did not heed them. They had dreamed of scoring the first goal. When it came inside three minutes, they were in fantasy land. “Yes, we can,” came the cry and, this time, it sounded different.
Unai Emery’s team pushed high at the outset, they snapped into challenges and they rattled Liverpool. Straight away they looked like the changed side that the manager had promised they would be. Time and again, they found spaces in behind the Liverpool full-backs.
The early goal was all about the silky touch of Etienne Capoue. He tore around the back of Andy Robertson to reach a left wing cross from Pervis Estupiñán and the first-time cut-back was perfect, on a plate for Boulaye Dia, who had burst away from Virgil van Dijk. The tap-in sparked delirious scenes.
Liverpool needed to shake their heads clear, to establish some sort of control but it was Villarreal who scented blood, who went for the jugular during a first half that will live long in the memory of those who were there. They made things extremely uncomfortable for the team that had sucked the life out of them in the first leg. Back then, Villarreal had barely crossed halfway. Now they stepped high to win the ball. They picked their passes, which repeatedly threatened to unhinge Liverpool.
Villarreal had the chances for 2-0 before 20 minutes were on the clock. Dani Parejo sent a low shot just wide while Gerard Moreno headed against Robertson from another Estupiñán cross when he might have done better. Moreno shimmered with menace, his return from injury a powerful tonic.
Liverpool could get little going before the interval, save for a Mohamed Salah break that led to Diogo Jota being caught up and put off by Raul Albiol. Villarreal continued to push, overwhelming Liverpool in midfield, and they were unlucky not to get a penalty on 37 minutes when Naby Keïta gave away possession and Moreno played in Giovani Lo Celso. Alisson seemed to hesitate before he cleaned him out and, if the goalkeeper got a piece of the ball, it was not entirely by design.
Villarreal did not cry. Instead, with the belief coursing through their veins, they scored again. Capoue crossed, after coming back inside Robertson with a Cruyff turn, and Coquelin leapt in front of Alexander-Arnold to power home.
Poor Rulli. Villarreal had given everything but they faded away and Capoue summed up the frustration when he was sent off late on, picking up a second yellow for a second poor challenge.