nai Emery, Jurgen Klopp had said ahead of kick-off, is a man with a plan for every occasion. A good job then, that the German knows his way around a yellow wall.
Having stifled Bayern Munich in the previous round, limiting Robert Lewandowski & Co. to just one goal across 180 minutes, Emery and his Villarreal side arrived at Anfield intent on making this semi-final first-leg a non-event and turning the tie into a one-off shootout at El Madrigal in a week’s time.
Instead, they were undone by a quickfire double at the start of the second-half that has Klopp’s quadruple chasers on the brink of the Champions League final, knowing only a collapse in that return six days from now will deny them a third trip to the European showpiece in five seasons.
By the time they travel to the continent, Liverpool’s pursuit of four trophies will have already gone deeper into a season, in date terms, than any English team in history and, thanks to Jordan Henderson’s deflected cross and Sadio Mane’s finish three minutes later, they are well on their way to becoming the first to play in all three major cup finals in the same season, too.
This was not a vintage Reds display and certainly not a match to rival that served up by Manchester City and Real Madrid 24 hours earlier, either.
But where City threatened to blow their opponents away, Liverpool prioritised control, never troubled defensively and always likely to win this game by however many they managed to score. The result is that, unlike Pep Guardiola’s men, they will take a two-goal cushion to Spain.
Villarreal, for their part, offered up the kind of defensive resistance that Real seemed to have no interest in. Unfortunately, they did not have Karim Benzema at the other end, nor even their own next-best-thing, with Spain striker Gerard Moreno not fit enough even for the bench after a hamstring problem.
Their stall was set out from the start. Francis Coquelin played in a four-man midfield containing two holders and was not one of them. Juan Foyth did as good a job as anyone has since his January arrival on these shores of shackling Luis Diaz, aided by the diligence of Giovani Lo Celso.
Dani Parejo and Etienne Capoue stationed themselves almost on the toes of their centre-halves, cramping the edge of the box and allowing the likes of Thiago Alcantara all sorts of freedom at anything more than arm’s length, which almost backfired spectacularly when the Spaniard came within inches of a first-half wondergoal, striking some combination of bar and post.
All the old tricks were in play, too. Geronimo Rulli took an age over his first goal-kick after just two minutes and continued to do so with admirable consistency. Each time he feigned to play short before ushering his defenders forward, as if only remembering in the nick of time that, against the best pressing team on the planet, that might be unwise. When just a minute was added at the end of the first-half, there were groans from The Kop aplenty.
The romanticism of this town of 50,000 weighing in behind a merry band of Premier League cast-offs has afforded them licence to play in this way and Emery, for all his conservatism here, does not inspire the kind of snide fury that courses through, say Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Still, it was not pretty.
Even so, Liverpool’s quality was already threatening to tell. Mane timed his run perfectly but flicked wide from Mo Salah’s superb cross, the pair combining in near-identical fashion to Riyad Mahrez and Kevin de Bruyne for City’s opener 24 hours earlier. A raking fifty-yard pass from Andy Robertson was met with a brilliant first-time cross on the volley from Trent Alexander-Arnold, who picked out Salah, the Egyptian just failing to do likewise with the top corner.
It was not individual quality, in the end, that did the trick, but an appreciable lifting of the tempo immediately after half-time and a bit of good fortune, as Henderson’s cross took a nick off Pervis Estupiñán, the change of direction enough to do for Geronimo, who could only flap into his own net.
In Emery’s blueprinting of every possible scenario, the folder marked ‘going a goal behind’ must surely have been fairly near the top of the pile. He will have no doubt stressed the importance of dodging the old one-two. But when Liverpool tails are up and Anfield is in full voice, that is easier said than done and Salah soon slid Mane home to poke in a second.
There has at times felt like a sense of destiny about Villarreal’s European run. Against a club who know all about that, however, they have surely reached the end of the road.