What Jurgen Klopp did after substituting Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson spoke volumes about Liverpool

What Jurgen Klopp did after substituting Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson spoke volumes about Liverpool

If there is to be a gentle gnawing at Liverpool on what was yet another memorable European night at Anfield, it will be that their dominance was not reflected by a healthier margin.

On first inspection, it seems a ridiculous point to make for a team who are now so close to the Champions League final in Paris they are practically docked at Calais, but such was the control of Jurgen Klopp’s Reds that Villarreal really should be heading back to Spain knowing their impossible dream is over. It really shouldn’t be this comfortable.

Nineteen shots and 73% possession doesn’t tell the full story of a game that at times – particularly at the end when Unai Emery’s men were desperate to simply keep hold of the debt they were already in – resembled a training match of attack against defense . It really was that purposeful from a team who can quite rightly lay claim to being Europe’s finest right now.

A 2-0 victory leaves the La Liga outfit with a mountain to climb at El Madrigal next week, at least. Klopp’s quadruple hunters are closing in on a third – yes, third – Champions League final in five years. That is the reality.

It’s now 17 years since an unfancied Liverpool played host to a first semi-final of the European Cup under its current Champions League guise. Back then, Rafa Benitez’s Reds were the plucky upstarts punching above their weight at the latter stages of football’s most star-studded competition.

Now, under Klopp, their third semi-final since 2018 merely reinforces the opinion they belong on this stage. They look totally at ease with the magnitude of what is potentially achievable and the subdued build-up to the Villarreal visit is proof enough that the Reds consider themselves a true titan on the continent in 2022.

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In previous years, the quiet countdown towards this last-four tie might have provoked a bit of head-scratching from some, even if the identity of the opposition did not exactly scream ‘European giant’. But in many ways for Liverpool now, that the pre-match hype was kept to a minimum is wholly beneficial to their overall goal of sweeping the board. They are coming for the lot and they might just do it, you know.

For Klopp and his team, this was just another game. The biggest of the month? Just about, probably. Although you’d have to weigh up the merits of the eight others across a busy April before making that the definitive conclusion.

Klopp says he and his players are treating every game like a final right now, so it was no real shock that a meeting with the side who currently sit seventh in La Liga was not given the hyperbole usually reserved for football fixtures at this end of the campaign.

And in the end, there was to be no real deviation from the script as a professional and dominant Liverpool dispatched their hard-working but ultimately limited visitors.

Three changes were made from Sunday’s Merseyside derby win as Jordan Henderson, Ibrahima Konate and Luis Diaz all returned.

After sitting out an hour of the victory against Everton, Diaz was the brightest on show in the early going. His willingness to run at right-back Juan Foyth was evident from the first whistle and he forced goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli into an unconvincing save after skipping in from the left and unleashing a low drive after 13 minutes, before testing him again later in the half in a similar fashion.

With Emery’s men more than content to sit in and wait for their chances, Liverpool’s plan to overwhelm was obvious even if it did not result in too many real opportunities in the opening half hour.

Mohamed Salah had a couple of chances after that, firing into the Kop with a right-footed volley from a wonderful Trent Alexander-Arnold cross moments after Giovani Lo Celso had blocked a goal-bound strike.

Thiago Alcantara pinged one from about 30 yards towards the end of the half and was so unlucky to see it strike the post with every opposition player behind the ball.

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Villarreal’s resolve was eventually broken less than 10 minutes into the second period when Henderson’s cross deflected off Pervis Estupinan to wrong foot Rulli whose palm could not stop it nestling into the corner.

And two minutes later Salah fed Mane for the all-important second. It was No.20 for the campaign and the 14th of his career in the knockout stages of the European Cup. How that central switch that was brought on by Diaz’s arrival has given him a mid-season spring in his step. The Senegal star is surely in his best form of the last two years right now.

Naby Keita and Diogo Jota were called from the bench for Mane and Henderson with 20 minutes to go and the trademark bear hugs the goalscorers earned from their manager spoke volumes about Klopp’s gratitude.

Joe Gomez and Divock Origi were then sent on for Alexander-Arnold and the excellent Diaz as Klopp looked to keep legs fresh ahead of that tight turnaround at Newcastle on Saturday lunchtime.

This is a Liverpool team constructed in the image of their manager; one that is teak-tough with an understanding of the fundamentals that hold in place its jovial, carefree outlook. It’s a squad that has been meticulously put together during Klopp’s reign and there is a sense now, in a type of crystallizing moment, that the last six years have all been building towards the month of May 2022.

With one foot now in the Champions League final and with an FA Cup showpiece to come before the breathless Premier League race reaches the finish line, this next month could yet be one that is never, ever forgotten.

It’s set to be a four-week period that could yet prove this Liverpool team as the greatest in its 130-year existence. That status really is attainable from here.

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