Mane helps give Liverpool the advantage in the first leg over Villarreal 2022-04-27 16:19:00


Being your favorite is one thing. Another to make it important.

Liverpool took a huge step towards their 10th European Cup final one night when they refused to lose sight of their plan, bringing them to the point where the prospect of an unprecedented four-way game became possible.

Villarreal came to disappointment. It’s an approach that has worked in the previous rounds, helping them to carry out amazing steals that have seen them overtake Juventus and Bayern Munich. With an empty record in the interval, Unai Emery had to feel part of the way for more loot.

Liverpool remained calm. Keep pressing the front foot, to manipulate the ball, only with a greater pace and a greater feeling. And they blew out the doors with two explosions in quick succession, the first when Jordan Henderson’s cross veered away from the unfortunate Pervis Estupinan to float into the far corner.

Villarreal was reeling and they were on the ground when Sadio Mane smashed into Mohamed Salah’s ball to defeat Jeronimo Rulli. The visitors did not threaten at any point and it is difficult to see how they will be able to turn things around in the second leg next Tuesday.

Banners fluttered in a glass before kick-off, reminding everyone that Liverpool are European royalty, and highlighting how one of the great David vs. Goliath stories at this point in the competition was.

Villarreal did not play in Spain’s first division until 1998-99 and won only one major title – the Europa League last season. Their town has a population of 50,000. In other words, less than the amplitude of Anfield.

This Liverpool team carries a fear factor and their pre-match calling card featured one devastating stat. Since January 2, they have only lost one important result – in the 2-2 Premier League draw with Manchester City.

Villarreal was compressed into a 4-4-2 system. It was the game of their lives and full compliance was the minimum requirement of Unai Emery, who previously had nothing but bad memories of this stadium. During his time at Arsenal, he was here three times and lost all three.

Jordan Henderson's cross deviates from Pervis Estupinian (left) and beats goalkeeper Jeronimo Rulli.
Jordan Henderson’s cross deviated from Pervis Estupinian (left) and beat goalkeeper Jeronimo Rulli. Photo: Karl Rissen/Action Images/Reuters

Liverpool wanted to show their usual aggressiveness, with and without the ball, and it was a bit worrisome for them when Rowley took his time with the first goal kick in the equaliser. With two minutes on the clock. Howl cup. Rowley was going through the same routine whenever he could while his teammates were too quick to get off and slow to get up. It was all about breaking Liverpool’s rhythm.

Jurgen Klopp’s side had to be patient after the early goal was not met. I probably did. Mane failed to dominate after Ibrahim Konate headed from a corner kick – the ball reached the striker quickly – but the big chance in the first quarter came when Salah got a pass from Mane on the right and looked up. Mane made his move, Salah’s cross was perfect but his header was all wrong.

Villarreal showed his composure on the ball in the first half. They played smart, which is no easy task in the face of the Liverpool press. They got caught sometimes but there was no sense of panic as they were spending the minutes until the end of the first half.

Emery’s team crossed barely halfway before the break, but it was all about blocks and interceptions, keeping in shape. Liverpool had other flashes. Salah curled out of the net, Mane rolled and saw a shot veered away while Salah raised the ball high. He was chosen by Trent Alexander-Arnold as a shot saver after a diagonal from Andy Robertson. Thiago Alcantara also rocked the straight from 30 yards.

Sadio Mane celebrates after scoring the second goal for Liverpool.
Sadio Mane celebrates after scoring the second goal for Liverpool. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Villarreal is spiritually linked to Liverpool as a city. The Yellow Submarine’s nickname is derived from the color of their shirts and the tone of Liverpool’s most famous team. It was released by the Beatles in 1966, and in the 1967-68 season, a squad of Villarreal fans began playing it in their club matches on a battery-powered record player.

The Anfield fans didn’t feel much connected but football is a game of patterns and Liverpool had to beat that game. They found a way in the second half.

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Fabinho had a goal disallowed after a corner kick, Virgil van Dijk headed towards him from an offside position, and there was good luck on the breakthrough goal. Liverpool will argue that they drove it themselves after a left-to-right movement saw Henderson exchange passes with Alexander-Arnold and he made the first real overlap of the night. He flicked his cross off Estupiñán and sailed over Rulli.

Mane’s end was a killer, quickly unloaded under pressure after Villarreal allowed Salah to spin – their first real mistake – and at this point Liverpool felt bloodshot and a fatal third goal.

He did not come, despite the best efforts of Andy Robertson, Van Dyck and Louis Diaz. Two felt enough.