The play really began at the end of the first half. A half that had seen Liverpool put paid to the tactical machinations of their managerial messiah, Jürgen Klopp, and get that corresponding home goal to level matters after a nearly perfect trip to Spain had ended with a last minute goal for Marcelino's Villarreal CF.
Things had gotten chippy, you see, when Roberto Soldado collected the ball wide right and took a peek up to where Cedric Bakambu roams. Denis Suarez earned the ire of the home crowd for several petulant moments, and Soldado himself was eager to wipe the slate clean with a Liverpool support that will never forget the Jon Patrick Flanagan sized perma-bruise left on the Spanish striker.
But he collected the ball nevertheless, spotted his man behind multiple Red shirts, took a couple of touches for space, and curled a low peach perfectly between Kolo Toure and Dejan Lovren. And at that exact moment, Bakambu made his run across the face of the Croatian, pulling him back as he burst those long legs forward, searching for the first touch of the ball.
A touch that came, and a touch that went. A tame swipe at the ball that never even moved Simon Mignolet off his original position. Just a simple scoop off the ground. For Liverpool fans it was a worrying demonstration of the movement and chemistry that the Villarreal attack possessed. For Bakambu it was one he'd live to regret.
The second half, then, and an aggregate scoreline of 1-1, with every other marble left to play for, and the memory of Villarreal resurgence vividly hanging over the second half whistle. Each passing moment, or tackling moment, or scoring moment had now become critical. Heels ripping across turf on every tackle, and studs twisting for purchase on every possession, both teams felt the knife's edge. Dejan Lovren must have felt it.
Lovren was the guy who was most keenly aware of the meaning of that warning shot from Villarreal's central forward. It was his most direct burden to carry. And so when it came time for him to show he'd learn his lesson, Lovren, like he's done since Klopp arrived on the Mersey, demonstrated that he's a quick learner.
Twenty seconds in to the forty sixth minute, Villarreal going left to right for those watching at home. Jaume Costa started the play in his own half, knocking it back to Mussachio for a thump forward. Lovren beat Bakambu to that thump, a strong play that was indicative of the one to come.
Soriano beat Can to the half clearance from Lovren, and pipped it back to Bakambu who found his running mate in Soldado. The slicked-back Spaniard saw the immediate run from the lithe Congolese -- eerily similar to the end of first half moment -- across the face of Lovren's position. The return pass, two more steps, and Villarreal's central striker had a central view of goal with the ball falling to this favored right peg. Full flight. A pullback for the shot.
And Dejan fucking Lovren had you covered all along lad.
The Croatian center half had matched the Congolese stride for stride with the sort of lateral defensive run that cuts off angles and makes no headlines. Getting closer. And closer. Closer. And closer. And then he slid.
Perfectly timed with the connection the Congolese made on his shot, head up, one leg out and one in. Perfect form for a recovery tackle. Textbook.
Bakambu went down and didn't even complain. His expression when he got back up was telling, though. Like an infant playing peek-a-boo for the first time, or when you're trying to look around a city bus whilst jaywalking only to have a Chevy Suburban whoosh past you at what feels like 100mph and inches from your face. He had expressions like that the rest of the night. Shook ones.
You'll hear superlatives thrown around for many different moments of this game. The goals, the assists, that turn. You'll perhaps argue about whether one fullback pushed forward enough versus the other staying home. You'll forget to rue over chances missed while you celebrate the ones taken. But none of it will really matter because the game was won, and your Liverpool are in the Europa League final.
But that is where it started, folks. Villarreal had been growing into that match, and had been slowly realizing they could play under those Anfield lights alright. That they hadn't even really exploited their top weapons, yet. And they were ready to start peppering Simon Mignolet's goal with that growing confidence. Only Dejan had other plans.
Dejan slammed that door so roughly that it made Bakambu second guess where he was picking his runs all night. It sent a message that he'd better get things just right, otherwise the big Croat was coming. It let Soldado and the youngster Denis Suarez know that their plight might need to include some magic of their own, if Bakambu was going to be so thoroughly shutdown on the eve. In a game of moments, it was a huge moment. It was the moment. It was the play that shifted the momentum of the night.
And this was no other night. This was a night where many narratives were rubbished. Adam Lallana hung tough and scored a goal. Kolo Toure demonstrated that keeping things in front of you and backpedaling are not inherently bad tendencies for a central defender. James Milner hit multiple beautiful corner kicks, and shook some defenders with deft ball skill. Daniel Sturridge was hideously profligate, and much better with his link up play than he was with his finishing. Roberto Firmino and Nathaniel Clyne... well Roberto Firmino and Nathaniel Clyne completely lived up to their narratives.
But all of those pale in comparison to what Dejan Lovren accomplished in that one play. It was a microcosm of what he has accomplished this season. Pariah to hero. Consistent liability to central rock. Calamitous to inspirational. As pure a demonstration as you will find that a footballer's form and performance is not set in stone. That shipping out a player -- no matter how much he's earned it -- is no more a guarantee of improvement than work on the training pitch. In fact, it's a much bigger gamble.
Liverpool won this game as a team, but Dejan Lovren shifted the balance of the game with that moment. Here's to our #6, here's to the gaffer, here's to the Reds. One more European night, lads.