Some would call it boring, while others would call it tactical. Whichever side you may be on, Liverpool toiled hard for 91 minutes at the El Madrigal in what could have been a perfect European away performance before conceding a 92nd-minute goal to undo all their good work.
Villarreal CF (4-4-2): Sergio Asenjo, Mario, Bailly, Victor Ruiz, Jaume, Jonathan, Pina, Bruno, Suarez, Soldado, Bakambu
The Yellow Submarines played a defensively tight 4-4-2 formation, which used the pace of the wingers and the forwards to threaten the Liverpool defence. Cedric Bakambu and Roberto Soldado led the line for the Spanish side with Denis Suarez and Jonathan dos Santos providing the width on the flanks.
Liverpool FC (4-3-3): Mignolet, Clyne, Toure, Lovren, Moreno, Lucas, Allen, Milner, Lallana, Coutinho, Firmino
Similar to their formation against Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-final away leg at the Signal Iduna Park, Jurgen Klopp employed 4-3-3 formation with Roberto Firmino taking up the role of the striker instead of Divock Origi, who is out for the season after picking up an injury against Everton in the Premier League. Daniel Sturridge started on the bench, while James Milner, Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva formed a three-man midfield. Kolo Toure started at the back alongside Lovren following Sakho’s suspension after a failed drugs test.
Firmino – The anonymous
Roberto Firmino was brought into the Liverpool side on Thursday night to do the job Divock Origi did at the Signal Iduna Park. Origi had held the ball up that night away in Dortmund, and brought Coutinho, Lallana, and Milner into play. The Belgian also scored the all-important away goal that night. Firmino was also assigned the same role by Klopp last night.
Instead of playing Daniel Sturridge, who has scored four goals in his last four appearances in the league, Klopp opted to play Firmino in the position. The ploy was similar to the one that Liverpool used against Dortmund in the away leg. Sit back, counter attack and get the precious away goal. It seemed easy on paper, but the personal was different this time around.
Unlike Origi, Firmino is a nimble-footed attacker who drifts out of the central areas to the sides in search of the ball. Origi runs the channels and is a traditional central forward, while the Brazilian is a more of an attacking midfielder. That made the difference on the night as the Villarreal defence carefully negotiated Firmino to keep Liverpool quiet.
(Only four touches for Firmino inside the box)
The Brazilian was nowhere to be seen in the first half, and did not even take a shot at the goal in the half, which was marginally dominated by Liverpool. Firmino was also wasteful in possession and gave away the ball many a times to put his defensive under pressure from Villarreal's counter attacks. The Brazilain improved his game a bit in the second half, and had a shot deflected off the post. Firmino’s ability to interchange with Coutinho and Lallana have helped Liverpool in the past, but on the day the Brazilian failed to enter the box to create enough dangerous situations against the Spanish side.
Defensive solidity of Villarreal
Estadio El Madrigal is not an easy place to visit. Real Madrid, Sevilla ,and Napoli all returned from the stadium empty handed after failing to break down the defence of Marcelino’s side. Although they employed a traditional 4-4-2 formation, the Yellow Submarines always had at least eight players behind the ball to tackle Liverpool’s attacks. The wingers tucked inside to narrow the gap between the midfielders and waited for their opportunity to counter-attack Liverpool. The two banks of four left little space for Liverpool’s attacking midfielders to display their natural game as they struggled to create any clear-cut chances.
Denis Saurez and Jonathan dos Santos used their pace to get behind the Liverpool full-backs to whip in crosses whenever needed and also tracked back to contain Coutinho and Lallana. In the midfield, Bruno Soriano broke down the Liverpool attacks and kept a tight leash of Coutinho, who looked a shadow of himself in the first forty-five, before making way for Jordan Ibe due to illness after the break. All in all, the all-important goal at the end vindicated Marcelino’s defensive approach in the home leg.
(8 Villarreal players behind the ball during Liverpool’s attack)
Sucker punch in stoppage time
Both sides played out perfect tactical defensive game for 91 minutes with each side hitting the post once. A goalless draw looked like a fair result on the night, and with a minute to go for the whistle, a goal from either side seemed unlikely. Then, Lallana lost possession near the half-line and the Spanish side broke through with skipper Bruno Soriano taking the ball. With Liverpool playing a high defensive line, Soriano’s ball behind Kolo Toure gave Denis Suarez ample space to run into and the winger cut it back for substitute Adrian Lopez for an easy goal.
Although the goal came in the injury time, the signs were there from the start. Clyne and Moreno joined others in the attack and that gave Suarez and Dos Santos enough opportunities to run at the defence and whip in crosses. The goal did not came from those breaks, but the Yellow Submarines played the same game that Liverpool wanted to play and beat them on it to take an advantage in the Europa League semi.
Ninety one minutes of hard work was lost in a minute. But Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool side still has 90 more minutes at Anfield next week to save the tie and their season. If not, Marcelino will lead the Yellow Submarines into the final at Basel on May 18.
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