Friday, 6 May 2016

Europa League Semi-Final: Liverpool F.C. Vs. Villarreal C.F. - 3-0 (3-1 on aggregate)

So, we’re through. Liverpool Football Club’s first European cup final since Athens in the Champions League back in 2007. An era where we were spoilt rotten when Rafa Benitez’s men constantly terrorised teams around Europe. Not only the team whom he managed, but Benitez himself struck the fear of god into all opposition back in those days. Take us on out your peril was the mantra. His tactical nous had shifted the paradigm of European cup competition. Now that paradigm is being morphed into a new guise, courtesy of one Jürgen Klopp, to the point where Liverpool are beginning to bear similar fruition to the Benitez days.

Looking at the statistics and they will suggest it the home leg against Spanish side, Villarreal, was something of a cakewalk. But 2-0 ahead against a very well organised opponent knowing that a solitary away goal would send the visitors through, it didn’t feel comfortable. Certainly not the levels of comfort supporters felt under Benitez. Not yet, anyway. A perfect example of that was Alberto Moreno’s careless nudge on Denis Suarez inside the box, which could have easily resulted in the referee awarding a penalty to the away side.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, it all proved somewhat academic in the end. Klopp’s go-to man in Adam Lallana put the tie to bed, neatly tucking home an initial scuffed attempt by Daniel Sturridge. We were through. The Liverpool faction of bed-wetters  suggesting we were out of the competition some seven days earlier thanks to a late Villarreal goal could rest easy (a large proportion probably weren’t around in the Benitez days). Onward and upwards. Unquestionably, this one was for the 96 and their families who, after the long and arduous battle for justice, finally received it. Destination Basel. History awaits with back-to-back Europa League Champions, Sevilla, standing in the way of silverware and a potential return to Champions League football. Here are my observations from the game.

      - The inclusion of Emre Can swung the tie in Liverpool’s favour. He was like a one man wrecking ball, penetrating through the midfield with his incessant marauding incursions. Most players coming back from injury take two to three games until they are in rhythm, but the young German was something akin to a new toy that had just been unwrapped from underneath the Christmas tree. When all is said and done at the season’s end, I think many will suggest that Emre Can has been Liverpool’s most improved and most important player under his fellow countrymen, Jürgen Klopp. It would be hard to disagree.

      -  Although Emre Can dismantled Villarreal’s midfield from the opening whistle, James Milner’s role in the demolition shouldn’t be overlooked. Earlier on in the season, Klopp seemed reluctant to slot the England international into the centre of midfield. With time, it’s evident that Klopp’s trust in Milner has become paramount, to the point where the vice-captain is now one of his most entrusted lieutenants. Our finest working-class hero since Dirk Kuyt.

     - From maligned and very much with one foot out the door, to becoming the team’s first choice centre-half, Dejan Lovren has become the bedrock of Liverpool’s defence under Klopp. It was another assured display from the big Croatian, who has galvanised a solid partnership with stalwart, Kolo Toure. How the tides have turned and although many players have divided opinion in the past (Martin Skrtel, Lucas Leiva et al), I don’t think anyone has turned it round quite like Dejan Lovren. It’s a great credit to the man.

     - Like the Can/Milner alliance, Lovren’s performances have been helped by Kolo Toure, who hasn’t let anyone down when called upon. For a 35-year-old to be performing the way he is at this level is a testament to the Ivorian's complete and utter professionalism. Don’t be surprised if he is offered another contract at the end of the season.

     - Roberto Firmino’s performance was one of his best in a Liverpool shirt. I’ve always maintained the belief that his work off the ball is just as important as the work he does on it, however the hallmark of his performance against Villarreal was his ability to keep possession. Oh, and that turn on Roberto Soldado…

     - Daniel Sturridge. Since coming back from injury, much has been made of his future at Anfield. From Klopp’s decision not to select him in every match to unremitting questions about his attitude, many of the backyard psychologists and body language experts would have been muzzled by Sturridge’s performance. Although not as lethal in front of goal as we are used to seeing, he hit the target when it counted. When all is said and done, I firmly believe the boy from the Midlands is Liverpool’s best player.

     - Like a conductor in front of his orchestra, Jürgen Klopp took centre stage at the end of the game, motioning to all quarters of the Anfield faithful in raw jubilation. The emotion with each fist-pump and each “c’mon!”  It was one of those moments that, in time, will be written into Liverpool Football Club folklore. I won’t lie, the scenes of triumph which filled my lounge room left me dewy-eyed. To think that Jürgen Klopp is the manager of Liverpool Football Club. It’s still a fact that is quite difficult to fathom.

      By Simon K.