By Carl Markham, PA
Liverpool booked their third Champions League final in five seasons after a chaotic 3-2 second-leg win in Villarreal saw them progress 5-2 on aggregate.
While the three-goal cushion may look comfortable this was a test of their nerve and powers of recovery as an awful first half by their standards saw their first-leg advantage wiped out by debut goals in the competition from Boulaye Dia and Francis Coquelin.
But the half-time introduction of £37.5 million January signing Luis Diaz, who has reinvigorated 2022 for Jurgen Klopp’s side, changed the game – aided and abetted by a distinctly ordinary goalkeeping performance from the hosts’ Geronimo Rulli.
Luis Diaz. That is all. 🤩 pic.twitter.com/HkksE2nSBO
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) May 3, 2022
The Argentinian had a hand – or lack of one – in all of Liverpool’s three goals from Fabinho, Diaz and Sadio Mane in 12 second-half minutes and was culpable for at least two.
Villarreal’s misery was completed when Etienne Capoue was sent off for a second yellow card for a foul on Curtis Jones late on.
Incredibly this was the first European semi-final away leg the 2019 winners had won since 1985, having lost the last four and conceded 11 goals in total yet still progressed on three occasions.
Thunderstorms on Monday night had given way to persistent rain throughout matchday – causing some localised flooding – and while that may have dampened the surface inside Estadio de la Ceramica it did not affect the atmosphere.
Klopp had warned his side would have to suffer in parts of this tie but he could not have expected that to start so early and last for so long.
The LaLiga side, conquerors of Juventus and Bayern Munich, did not manage a shot on target at Anfield last week but scored with their first here in only the third minute.
Pervis Estupinan’s cross was met at the far post by Capoue, whose mis-hit shot found Dia to score into an unguarded net.
Villarreal were hoping to become just the second side to overturn a two-goal first-leg deficit in a semi-final, after Liverpool’s famous comeback from 3-0 down against Barcelona in 2019 – and their opponents gave them every encouragement.
Boosted by the return of striker Gerard Moreno, they were aggressive and direct but the manner in which the visitors failed to handle that was startling.
Naby Keita was preferred to captain Jordan Henderson after a good goalscoring performance at Newcastle on Saturday, but this was surely an occasion to be controlled not cavalier.
Liverpool were overrun in midfield, which was not entirely Keita’s fault, and their failure to string any significant sequence of passes together only contributed to the chaotic nature of their performance.
Even when they did get in behind the Villarreal defence, Jota’s touch was heavy from Mohamed Salah’s through-ball and gave Rulli enough of a chance to reach it. He did not claim cleanly but Salah’s follow-up challenge was deemed a foul.
Prior to this game Klopp’s side had been behind for only 57 minutes in 2022 but by the break they had not only trailed for 42 minutes but were even further behind.
They were lucky to escape conceding a penalty when Keita’s misplaced back-pass straight to Moreno set up Giovani Lo Celso but he ran the ball too close to Alisson and the goalkeeper was given the benefit of the doubt as the ball hit him just before the player went over him.
But the second goal came four minutes from the interval when Capoue’s inviting cross to the far post was met by Coquelin, who out-jumped Alexander-Arnold to float a header into the top corner.
Swapping Diaz for Jota for the second half made an immediate improvement, allowing Mane to play centrally where he has done well recently.
And as Liverpool started to build pressure, Alexander-Arnold had a long-range shot deflected onto the crossbar while Diaz acrobatically volleyed wide from Mane’s cross.
It finally told in the 62nd minute when Salah slid in Fabinho and his low, angled drive went through Rulli at his near post.
The two-goal cushion was restored five minutes later when Diaz’s downward header from a left-footed Alexander-Arnold cross was only half-saved and Liverpool’s tumbling Colombia international inadvertently turned it in.
But Rulli’s eventful night was not over as when he charged 20 yards outside his area to meet the onrushing Mane, the Senegal international side-stepped him then took the ball wider to avoid the recovering defender before rolling the ball into an open goal.
Liverpool are into a third final of the season, having won the Carabao Cup and facing Chelsea in the FA Cup a week on Saturday, and this victory means they will have played every game available to them in their fixture calendar.
The relentless pursuit of a quadruple – and a seventh European Cup – rolls on.