Adrian Lopez’s 90th minute winner saw Villarreal beat Liverpool 1-0 and take a big advantage in last night’s Europa League semi-final first leg at Villarreal’s El Madrigal stadium.
A tight and tactical first-half saw few clear chances and no goals, while the second period saw both Villarreal’s Cedric Bakambu and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino hit the woodwork.
Bakambu had a glorious late chance, after a slip by visiting left-back Alberto Moreno, but Simon Mignolet saved well. From the resulting corner, Liverpool broke and Moreno went clear, but his shot flew high and wide.
Just as it seemed the teams were heading towards next Thursday’s second leg at Anfield with the tie neatly balanced - Villarreal struck in the closing seconds.
Man of the match Bruno Soriano’s ball behind the defence was superbly controlled by Denis Suarez, who ran clear, drew Mignolet, and unselfishly squared for substitute Adrian to tap home to the empty net.
That was almost the final action of the game, and the home fans erupted in noise. Villarreal have gone through in every one of the 21 European ties in which they have won the first leg and Jurgen Klopp’s team face a stiff task in turning this around next week.
The modest club from the 50,000 population town of Vila-real were nicknamed ‘The Yellow Submarine’ by a local priest in the 1960s, and the Beatles song was played pre-game with around 5,000 Liverpool supporters in the 25,000 seater El Madrigal stadium.
The friendship between the clubs also shown as the home fans unveiled a ‘96 - You’ll Never Walk Alone’ banner, in the week in which it was found that the Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough in 1989 had been unlawfully killed.
Without the injured Divock Origi, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson, and with Mamadou Sakho out having failed a drugs test, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp chose Kolo Toure at centre-back, went with Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva in midfield, and left strikers Daniel Sturridge and Christian Benteke on the bench.
Roberto Firmino was the central attacker in a 4-3-3, and the Brazilian was constantly on the move, looking to drop deep and link with his teammates. This meant that Liverpool could keep the ball well, but were often playing in front of Villarreal’s well organised two lines of four.
A Villarreal team almost at full-strength just about edged the first-half in terms of chances, as the two teams looked to move the ball around and look for openings, rather than throw too many players forward.
Liverpool’s Joe Allen had the best early opportunity - when a cross was deflected into his path but he shot straight at Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo from 12 yards.
At the other end, former Tottenham striker Roberto Soldado twice came close, but both times was unable to test visiting Mignolet. Villarreal midfielder Tomas Pina did make the Belgium international work – as he went full length to push away the curler from the edge of the area.
The visitors were getting a lot of joy down their right-hand side, with James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne combining well. Clyne in particular had plenty of chances to cross, but there was rarely an obvious target to aim for, and his delivery was often poor.
Villarreal almost opened the scoring just after half-time, with top-scorer Cedric Bakambu’s header from a corner hitting the near post with Mignolet beaten. Firmino came just as close, after he had been picked out in space inside the box by Milner, but again the shot rebounded back into play.
This season’s Villarreal team are often likened to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, and they are often happy to let the other team have the ball. There was also not too much of Klopp’s characteristic high-press, with neither team appearing keen to get players caught ahead of the ball. The German was involved in a heated exchange with opposite number Marcelino who was angry at a challenge by Lucas Leiva which went unpunished, but the two soon smiled and made up.
All involved seemed aware that a mistake at this point could be serious, and both coaches’ conservative substitutions suggested they were happy for the tie to be decided next week.
Then Bruno and Suarez combined for Adrian to tap home – and Villarreal are big favourites now to make what will be their first ever European final.
Asenjo 6; Mario 6, Bailly 7, Victor Ruiz 6, Jaume Costa 6; Dos Santos 6, Bruno 9, Pina 7, Denis Suarez 7; Soldado 7, Bakambu 6. Subs:
Castillejo 5, Adrian 6, Musacchio 5
Mignolet 6; Clyne 6, Toure 6, Lovren 7, Alberto Moreno 6; Lucas Leiva 6, Allen 6, Milner 7; Lallana 5, Coutinho 5, Firmino 7. Subs
: Ibe 5, Benteke N/A
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: An alternative Premier League team of the season
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved