Sonic the Hedgehog saves Liverpool and ruins Villarreal’s big night | Champions League
“You suffer and then…”, Jürgen Klopp snapped his fingers: “…you react.”
It may not have been that simple, or that instantaneous, and it certainly wasn’t that easy, but it turned out that the Liverpool manager was not far off his prediction.
Oh, they had suffered, that was sure, and they had reacted too. Not so much a snap of the fingers, perhaps, as a fist on the red button. A decision too, taken in the locker room at half-time: life is different with Luis Díaz, in particular because he is different. And so when it all started up again, there he was. They had needed him.
At the half-time whistle, the Cerámica stood up and began chanting, “Yes, we can!” It wasn’t the first time they’d done it – those words had popped up every once in a while since the very beginning – but this time they really meant it: 2-0 in the evening, the aggregate score 2-2 and the game in their grip, Villarreal were on the cusp of something special, another absurd achievement for the team that the Super League would have left behind and graced the Champions League like no one else.
Juventus, Bayern… and Liverpool? These three clubs have 14 European Cups between them. Villarreal didn’t even have a final, but it was closer now than it had ever been, a roll call of the continent’s biggest clubs defeated along the way. Only, although Liverpool have lost two goals for the first time, they have yet to be beaten and, as Unai Emery warned, they are a team that can hurt you in a thousand ways.
“There is no perfect scenario,” said Pau Torres, but there was and that was it, even better than they had expected, let alone dared to believe.
Maybe it was too good? “I look at Villarreal and I think: ‘What would I do?’ Two zeros, maybe you haven’t played your best football. Give it a try. That’s exactly what Villarreal will do. They’ll go for it,” Klopp said, another prediction turned out to be correct.
It had all seemed so unlikely. Liverpool hadn’t been beaten by more than two goals all season and even the mood didn’t seem right for a comeback. A biblical storm had rumbled through the night and all day, rivers in the streets, fans rushing for shelter as much as they sang in the streets. Rarely have the minutes before a European semi-final been less auspicious, with Villarreal president Fernando Roig fearing the weather “would take something away from that”.
Even if Villarreal were to turn things around, the plan still seemed to be on the safe side. Emery had spoken of the need to be “rough on the defensive”. Torres had said a single goal would put them in and insisted: “If it doesn’t matter if it comes in the first minute or the 60th.” Instead, he came after just three. A second followed after 41, that stunned calm, belief flooding them, the noise making that night a special night, even ultimately in defeat.
Villarreal swarmed Liverpool, the intensity that had inhibited them before now matches. It was the perfect storm, the rain falling around them was no longer noticeable in the stands, too much fun for that.
Self-styled defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin was rushing behind the full-backs. Dani Parejo took control. Gerard Moreno, absent at Anfield, all clever touches.
Albiol released the ball. Étienne Capoue delivered two wonderfully subtle moments to provide the two goals, the first scored by Boulaye Dia, the second by Coquelin.
That was the good news for Villarreal. The bad news was that they had done so much so quickly that, like Liverpool, they had a decision to make. Maybe it was too fast? Level now, they had something to lose, something to keep. The second half would suggest they might have picked recklessly or maybe – a simple fact so often, so easily forgotten – it was more about the team they had in front of them. The team that, led by Díaz, some Sonic the Hedgehog footballers, has now torn them apart.
There was also, perhaps it would be cruel to mention that it would be unrealistic not to, the goalkeeper standing behind them. Suddenly activated, with Trent Alexander-Arnold let loose, Mané moving through the middle, all that red machine moving forward, faster and faster, Liverpool hit Villarreal three times in 12 minutes. Twice the ball entered the net through the legs of Gerónimo Rulli, once he honored his name by charging from his goal to leave it unguarded.
In a flash, a snap of the fingers, it was gone. The reaction was ruthless and it was total.
Rulli, the man whose save and penalty clinched Villarreal to the Europa League title last season, helping them reach the Champions League first, crouched down looking lost. Behind him, the Cerámica applauds, broken but proud. In the end, no, they couldn’t, but for a moment they really thought they would. They had come a long way.
“How could I not love you, when you made me win in Europe for the first time?” supporters sang, as the final moments played out and Liverpool headed to Paris, in search of their seventh.