Liverpool, the city, did its job in welcoming Villareal’s team bus, while Liverpool, the team, did theirs in dismantling it.
As it would have to be, tonight was a tale of patiently and persistently probing until a crack appeared, and the Reds duly obliged, producing a professional performance and giving themselves an excellent situation ahead of the return leg.
The Reds were all winners tonight, but below, we take an extra look at a couple of them.
Turning the Screw: It was obvious from the start — certainly for anybody who watched their quarter-finals with Bayern Munich — that Villareal would try and replicate the Everton model of trying to get something from Anfield; sit deep in a low, compact block, waste time, feign head injury, and pray for a counter. Thankfully, they skipped the kick people at every opportunity piece.
While that is, on paper, an eminently sensible tactic against the powerhouse that is this Liverpool team, it is also one that almost never works anymore. The Reds’ counterpress was phenomenal tonight, shutting down any attempt at crossing into their territory at the onset — Villareal managed only 180 passes and a single shot on the night — and as a result, the offense was allowed ample opportunity to probe at the Villareal backline, fishing for gaps in the armour.
They nearly found it on a few occasions in the first half, as Unai Emery’s narrow block opened space in the wide areas, where Liverpool’s playmakers would receive the ball after a big switch, and then wait for that transitional moment when the defenders look to settle in their new positions, to find those interstitial, temporary spaces and slip a pass through.
While the visitors went into the dressing room without conceding, most fans watching felt like they would have to make changes to avoid being overrun at some point in the second half, and while there was a touch of luck about the way the ball crossed the line on the opening goal — deflected past a flapping Rulli by a reaching Pervis Estupiñán — the process that led it there was consistent with what had come before, as three players were wide open in the middle had the cross not been interfered with.
There was no luck about the manner in which the Reds dialed up the pressure after the opener, either, and it only took 133 seconds to double the lead, as the raucous Anfield crowd and a further energised Liverpool team combined to torment their visitors relentlessly, forcing errors in passing and positioning until a telling pass could be found.
The low block may not be dead, but these Reds are consistently finding ways to put it to sleep.
The African Connection: There’s been much talk over the years — spurred on, no doubt, by that one time they were mad at each other — about how Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah don’t get along. Online body language enthusiasts and assorted dishonest cherry pickers will provide specific moments in games as “evidence” of this, while disregarding the majority of the five years the two have spent together as one of Europe’s deadliest attacking forces.
And yet, they keep setting each other up for shots and goals. The two combined for eight shots and three key passes tonight, with Mo providing the assist for Sadio’s goal — a perfectly timed slip through the legs of Pau Torres — allowing the Senegalese forward to toe poke the ball past Rulli and give the Reds their two-goal cushion.
Undoubtedly, people will focus on Sadio’s glum demeanor upon being substituted tonight, and completely disregard his smiling and high-fiving as soon as he sat down on the bench, but the internal squad harmony will remain unaffected, and these mighty Reds will go on to win more games, spearheaded by their outstanding African attackers.
Big Ibou: Simply flawless tonight, the Frenchman.
Ibrahima Konaté has been blooded gradually, if not particularly carefully, this season, playing second fiddle to the experienced Joël Matip, but often featuring in high-profile games and — noticeably — against high-profile attackers, a challenge the 22-year old seems to relish.
Liverpool’s aggressive press and much-debated high defensive line leaves their centre-backs in positions where they have to perform highly demanding defending in open space on the regular, but his ability to do just that was one of the main reasons Konaté was hand-picked by Michael Edwards and his laptop gang, and while Villareal weren’t able to put the Reds defence under much pressure tonight, when they did, the former RB man dealt with it expertly, rushing into midfield to intercept, keeping pace with runners in behind, and winning every single duel he partook in, as and when required.
Ibou always looked a promising signing, but over the course of the season, has begun veering into blockbuster territory.
Question Mark: The ref was kind of shit?
I can’t think of any, to be honest. The rest of the world trying to keep up with these lads, I guess.
What Happens Next
It’s the dreaded Saturday Lunch Time Kickoff Following a European Night, as the Reds travel to the Sports Washing 2.0 Arena to face off with an in-form Newcastle side that has, disappointingly, wiggled their way out of any danger of relegation. The Magpies have won four in a row, and while they have definitely improved since blood money enthusiast Eddie Howe took over, they should be a size too small to hinder the Reds’ chase for the title.
Then, it’s a trip to Spain on Tuesday, to wrap up what will hopefully be an uneventful second leg and ticket to the Champions League final, a game Liverpool have not featured in since 2019. Decent night, that, if I recall. We should do it again.