Thursday, June 30, 2022

Champions League: How Liverpool erased Villarreal’s blueprint for another upset

Part of the irresistible appeal of this Villarreal CF side and their fairytale run to these Champions League semifinals has been their ability to ride their luck. They did that perfectly for 50 minutes or so until Pervis Estupinan deflected Jordan Henderson’s effort over Geronimo Rulli in a 2-0 first-leg defeat at Liverpool on Wednesday.

Once the ball had hit the back of the Anfield net for the first time in Liverpool’s favor on Wednesday, it was simply a question of how long it would be until Jurgen Klopp’s men suffocated the Spaniards enough to score again.

The answer came just two minutes later when Unai Emery’s gameplan was left in tatters after Mo Salah picked the visiting defense apart to tee up Sadio Mane, who finished on the stretch to put one big red foot in the Paris final.

Of course, there is still a second leg to come in Spain and the opportunity to write history will massively appeal to El Submarino Amarillo and their devoted traveling fans who were left unable to argue against Liverpool’s superiority.

This was always the risk, though. In the quarterfinal upset of Bayern Munich, Samuel Chukwueze finished the only clear-cut chance which came the way of Emery’s men in a perfect storm of the Spanish tactician’s making with the Nigeria international’s fresh legs outstripping the Bayern defense.

The fact that he was part of the starting XI with Gerard Moreno unavailable was already far from ideal in terms of tactical setup against Liverpool and the result was an isolated evening for the likes of Giovani Lo Celso and Arnaut Danjuma, who just could not get into the game no matter how much they tried.

With the attacking chemistry altered, the midfield trio of Dani Parejo, Etienne Capoue and Francis Coquelin only partially worked, and it was the first area which Emery looked to address after Mane had made it two — already too late to save the result.

Defensively, Villarreal were one deflection and a moment of magic away from a clean sheet and an impressive draw but that is simply not going to cut it at Estadio de la Ceramica next Tuesday when the La Liga outfit must win by at least two goals just to force the tie beyond 90 minutes.

Sure, they might score. The sense of occasion might also create those unique senses that a miracle might be in the air and see the Spaniards pull level at some point. However, for that to stand any chance of happening, they must exist in attack.

Chukwueze’s explosiveness best serves the team in short bursts late in the game while Lo Celso is a passenger if he is not given the ball and the license to indulge his artistry in and around the opposing penalty area.

Danjuma has shown how much of a threat he can be already this edition but to expect him to shoulder the goal-scoring burden with focal point Moreno out and Boulaye Dia as a substitute was always asking a lot of him.

Ultimately, it felt inevitable that Villarreal’s approach would collapse like this at some point. The important thing is that it is not enough to end their dreamlike run here and now. There is still an opportunity for them to do the unthinkable next week — it is just that much harder after this.

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