Liverpool's Champions League dreams could have become nightmares after the first half. But when the final whistle was blown by head referee Danny Makkelie, the dream of continental supremacy for Jurgen Klopp's squad was still alive and well thanks to the likes of Fabinho, Luis Díaz and Sadio Mané as the Reds booked a trip to the UCL final in Paris on Tuesday.
After blowing a 2-0 aggregate lead at Villarreal in the first half of the second leg, the Reds exploded for three second-half goals to secure a 3-2 win away from home and reach their third UCL final in the last five seasons. They advanced 5-2 on aggregate. Fabinho, Díaz and Mané each scored in a blistering 12-minute span to turn the tie on its head, stunning the 21,872 fans at the rainy Estadio de la Ceramica after their team had Liverpool on their heels with an exceptional opening 45 minutes. A third-minute goal from Boulaye Dia and a 41st-minute header from Francis Coquelin allowed the Spanish club to believe they could pull it off, but in the end they could not produce enough on either end of the pitch.
Fabinho could not have picked a better time to score his first UCL goal for the Reds in the 62nd minute, which gave them the 3-2 lead on aggregate. Five minutes after that low strike trickled past Geronimo Rulli, Díaz headed home a Trent Alexander-Arnold cross to end Cinderella's time at the ball. Mané cemented the win with a nifty solo finish 16 minutes from time.
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A common theme on all three Liverpool goals was the poor execution by goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli and his defenders. It madethings too easy for the visitors, who came to life when it mattered most.
As a result, Liverpool now await Manchester City or Real Madrid in the final, with those two playing their semifinal second leg on Wednesday.
Here's what to know about the game:
It was the perfect start from Villarreal
You may recall Villarreal's quarterfinal first leg against Bayern Munich where it took the Yellow Submarine just eight minutes to open the scoring via Arnaut Danjuma. Without the Dutchman on this night due to injury, it took Villarreal just three minutes to go ahead.
Dia, a 25-year-old French forward in his first season at the club, scored this opener to pull his team back into the tie and give them all of the momentum, capitalizing on a poor opening half from the Liverpool defense:
It was a fantastic sequence by Unai Emery's side, with him working his European magic again, giving them the belief that they could once again slay a giant of Europe. It was also Dia's first career UCL goal.
They just had to get the first goal, and they did, starting what was an impressive opening 45 minutes for the underdogs.
What was Alexander-Arnold doing?
With the tie hanging in the balance, the next goal was either going to end Villarreal's chances or boost them greatly. That's when Coquelin delivered. The former Arsenal man rose to a cross and headed brilliantly past Alisson to make it 2-2 just before the break.
But just look at Alexander-Arnold, who did not even jump to defend the header:
Absolutely inexplicable by the English defender, and he knows it. Fortunately for him, he would redeem himself. But to not even try and throw Coquelin off balance was baffling and poor judgement. He either underestimated what the Frenchman could do or just felt like he was too late on a wet and sloppy surface due to pouring rain, but anything other than what he did would have been better.
Rough from Rulli
With the second half beginning, the match could have gone really either way. But the introduction of Díaz saw Liverpool look much more in sync in the attacking third, and that improved possession allowed more players to get forward. That is where Fabinho came in, slipping into the box and getting a fortunate goal that Rulli probably should have stopped:
From there, it was all downhill for the Argentine shot-stopper, and he finished the night knowing he could have done much better on all three goals conceded.
Alexander-Arnold redeems himself
The fullback would not take long to full redeem himself, delivering a perfect cross to Díaz to make it 2-2. Alexander-Arnold, who finished with two chances created and one shot that deflected off Coquelin and hit the crossbar, found the Colombian back post with a signature ball in to give his team the breathing room they needed:
Díaz brought the spark in that second half, but Alexander-Arnold managed to deliver the goods when needed, playing it at just the right time to keep the attacker on.
Magnificent Mané ends it
The match then opened up, and it had to with Villarreal chasing. And it was always going to be Liverpool's from there. With Villarreal clearly rattled and desperate, it was another Rulli blunder that allowed the Senegalese superstar to ice it. Mané was sent through, took a touch past the out-of-place goalkeeper and his defender, and he made it look easy the rest of the way.
With the result, Liverpool will feel
As united as ever. Look, at the break, it wasn't looking good for them. But Klopp brought on Díaz, had his team stick to the plan, and they managed to settle in. With 55 percent possession, nearly 20 percent less than the first leg, they were going to need to be a bit more efficient, and they were. It took longer than they wanted, but it came. They never caved in, they remained poised, and they put on their scoring boots at half time. As a result, they could be just 90 minutes away from their seventh UCL crown.
What could have been for Villarreal
Admirable. It was never likely that they would be able to pull this off, especially after what they did to Bayern, but boy did they give it their best shot. They had the Reds on the ropes, and in the end there was just not enough quality.
For decades to come, Villarreal fans will be able to share the story of what 2021 and 2022 were like. From winning their first European trophy last year in the Europa League to making their second and most surprising run to the UCL semifinals, they showed that La Liga is not facing its demise, rather it is fostering its revival.
Manchester City and Real Madrid will play on Wednesday in their second leg, and the winner of that tie will face Liverpool on May 28 at 3 p.m. ET at the Stade de France. You can see all of the remaining UCL matches on CBS and Paramount+.