Diaz the Liverpool game changer
The Liverpool players left the pitch in stunned silence as the home crowd roared with joy. It was half-time at the Estadio de la Ceramica and Villarreal had moved up to the aggregate level.
Jurgen Klopp’s side looked like they were in serious trouble but luckily for them it was as bad as it gets. In the end, a night that threatened disaster had turned into a night of celebration.
A third Champions League final in five years is coming and it owes a lot to Luis Diaz.
The Colombian, outstanding since arriving from Porto in January, turned the tables after replacing Diogo Jota in the interval, scoring Liverpool’s second goal as he headed home from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross and causing near panic constant in the hitherto peaceful defense of Villarreal.
Within 15 minutes of his introduction, he had touched the ball more times than Jota in the entire first half and each of those touches seemed to scare off the yellow-shirted defenders unfortunate enough to end up close.
Juan Foyth, in particular, will be eager to forget his night against Diaz, whose explosive pace and sheer relentlessness gave the former Tottenham right-back endless struggles.
Diaz was a flurry of activity on the left flank for Liverpool, dribbling four times and attempting four shots – twice as many as any of his team-mates despite only playing one half.
But in addition to the chaos factor that so effectively destabilized Villarreal, there was composure in the way he used the ball, with all but two of his 20 passing attempts finding a red shirt.
Afterwards, Virgil van Dijk called his impact “incredible” and the centre-back wasn’t the only one grateful for the 25-year-old’s contribution. He was a game changer for Liverpool. Don’t expect him to start again on the bench in Paris.
Liverpool and Klopp one step closer to immortality
It’s a good time to be a Liverpool fan, who can look forward to two more finals this season. In effect, Jurgen Klopp guided them to a round of 16 while coaching and they are now just six games away from a historic quadruple.
Liverpool came here to finish the job, show their professionalism and finish what they started a week ago in the face of a crackling atmosphere – but they showed signs of frailty in the opening 45 minutes.
Experience would eventually tell, aided and abetted by an utterly ordinary goalkeeping performance from the hosts’ Geronimo Rulli.
Liverpool had held that position twice before under Klopp, advancing twice before losing the 2018 final to Real Madrid and winning a sixth European Cup against Tottenham the following year.
Only one team has ever reversed a two-goal Champions League semi-final deficit – Klopp’s Liverpool against Barcelona that season. Their craftsmanship, especially in 2019, has certainly helped here despite Unai Emery’s very proud knockout history in European competition.
He was PSG manager on the receiving end of Barcelona’s infamous ‘Remontada’ in 2017 – and was described as the ‘king of cups’ by Klopp – but that proved a step too far, even for him, to stage his own turnaround for a team. currently seventh in La Liga.
Ending May with four trophies in the cabinet is becoming a growing possibility for Liverpool.
The Carabao Cup was won in February and they can also expect an FA Cup final in just under a fortnight. Underlying all of this is another epic title race that is set to go all the way with Manchester City just a point clear with four matches.
The relentless pursuit of a quadruple – and a seventh European Cup – continues.
Rulli’s mistakes cost Villarreal dearly over two legs
That’s a stat that says a lot about the Villarreal keeper Geronimo Rulli. The Argentine has made the most goal-leading errors of any player in the Champions League this season with three.
Two of them came in the second leg loss to Liverpool as he weakly let Fabinho’s shot through his legs despite being hit directly on him. A top goalkeeper would have definitely stopped the Brazilian’s shot and kept Liverpool scoreless at the time.
He couldn’t do much against Luis Diaz’s goal which equalized Liverpool, as his powerful downward header went through his legs.
But Rulli was again entirely at fault for the third and final goal as he rushed madly to clear the ball but was beaten by Mane, who then rounded Juan Foyth to tap into an empty net for a single finish.
The 29-year-old was always going to be a major weak link after the first leg. He was incredibly fragile at Anfield as he constantly kicked the ball around and inspired Liverpool’s attack more than their defence.
Indeed, he was at fault for Liverpool’s opener at Anfield as Jordan Henderson’s deflected cross somehow spun on him after poor footwork as he misjudged the flight of the ball.
In the two matches of this semi-final, Rulli cost his team three goals and things might have been tighter for Liverpool if Villarreal had had a better goalkeeper.
In fact, Rulli became the first goalkeeper to commit two errors in the same Champions League knockout game since Liverpool’s Loris Karius.
Villarreal boss Unai Emery could certainly learn from how Jurgen Klopp left Karius after that 2018 Champions League final defeat to sign Alisson and solve his goalkeeping problem.