A week ago everything looked lost. Liverpool were 90 minutes away from a disappointing season. But as it turned out, Daniel Sturridge starred with a brilliant performance to guide Liverpool to a 3-0 win over Villarreal to register their place in the Europa League Final on May 18 at Basel.
How they lined up:
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Mignolet, Clyne, Toure, Lovren, Moreno, Can, Milner, Lallana, Coutinho, Firmino, Sturridge
After conceding a late goal away at the Estadio El Madrigal last Thursday, Liverpool needed goals to progress to the final and in came Daniel Sturridge, who remained on the bench in the first leg. Emre Can had suffered an ankle injury in the memorable quarter-final home leg against Borussia Dortmund, but a remarkable recovery from the injury by the German midfielder saw him partnering James Milner at the centre of the park. With Lucas and Allen out, Liverpool went back to the 4-2-3-1 instead of the 4-3-3 used at El Madrigal. Coutinho, Firmino, and Lallana took their positions behind Sturridge as Jurgen Klopp put out an attacking line-up on the field.
Villarreal CF (4-4-2): Areola, Mario, Musacchio, Victor Ruiz, Jaume, Jonathan, Pina, Bruno, Suarez, Soldado, Bakambu
Adrian Lopez had put Villarreal ahead in the tie last week, but that did not help him earn a starting berth as Marcelino went in with the same 4-4-2 formation that they had used in the first leg. The Yellow Submarines also made two changes, just like their rivals, and brought in goalkeeper Alphonse Areola and centre back Mateo Musacchio instead of Sergio Asenjo and injured Eric Bailly respectively.
Sturridge - the difference
A week back, Liverpool struggled in front of goal against the Yellow Submarines. Roberto Firmino cut a sorry figure up top that day, with him making just just four touches inside the box. The attacking midfielder’s ability to interchange with Coutinho and Lallana helped Klopp in maintaining the 4-3-3 formation that day, but the Brazilian was an anonymous figure in attack away at El Madrigal.
With goals being the need of the day, Klopp brought in Sturridge into the attack, with Firmino moving behind the Englishman. The ploy proved to be the difference on the day as Sturridge played a part in all the three Liverpool goals. Unlike Firmino, Sturridge is a classical ‘fox in the box’ and spends most of his time getting into goal scoring areas. Apart from scoring the all-important second goal, which put Liverpool ahead in the tie, the Englishman was always in and around the box waiting for an opportunity to cash in.
(Firmino's touches inside the box, as a striker, in the first leg (top), Sturridge's touches inside the box in the second leg (bottom))
After taking a cautious approach in the first leg, Klopp went for the jugular on Thursday evening at Anfield. An attacking system against one of Europe’s best counter-attacking teams was a big gamble at the start, but the work rate of Sturridge, and the three behind him, made the job easy for Liverpool in the end.
The Reds started on the front foot and Villarreal found it tough with the change in goalkeeper and centre back. Liverpool gave them no time to build up from the back and hunted them in packs to retrieve the ball. With the Liverpool players rushing in, Victor Ruiz and Musacchio were hurried into their passes and sometimes they gave the ball away to the wrong players, while at other times they had to resort to just clearing the ball. The pressing from Liverpool also paved the way for the Yellow Submarines running out of steam in the second half and Victor Ruiz’s red card made it even tougher for them to recover.
Lallana, Firmino, Coutinho were the main weapons of Klopp in employing the pressing game and the three attacking midfielders played their roles perfectly. Another one who ran the whole game was captain James Milner and although his crosses were disappointing on the night, the tireless efforts of the midfielder also helped Liverpool close down their opponents.
(Early pressure by Liverpool on the rival back four and the goalkeeper)
With Villarreal playing a compact 4-4-2, Liverpool also used the full-backs to good effect and pushed Moreno and Clyne up the pitch to keep the rival team’s wingers Jonathan Dos Santos and Denis Suarez quiet.
Emre Can – a warrior in the middle
Emre Can’s season looked all but over a few weeks back after he picked up an ankle injury against Borussia Dortmund. Remarkably, the German midfielder recovered in time for Liverpool’s home leg against Villarreal and returned to the centre of the midfield to show what they have been missing. At El Madrigal last week, Liverpool employed a three-man midfield with Lucas, Allen, and Milner. But the midfield trio came out second best to Bruno Soriano and Pina in the yellow jersey
With Can back in the team, Liverpool went in with a two-man midfield. While Milner bombed forward from the centre of the park, the German controlled the middle and spread the ball around with ease to build up the play from the back. With both the full backs pushed up, Can also dropped into the defence to make it a back three during some periods of the match. He had an 86% pass accuracy and controlled the midfield almost single-handedly.
(Emre Can's output on the night)
On the other hand, the Yellow Submarines ran into a team that was totally different to the one that they defeated last week. Marcelino’s hopes of hitting Liverpool on the counter went up in smokes early into the game
Till the match at Anfield on Thursday evening, Spain was the talk of the town in European football. An all-Spanish final in the Champions League and the Europa League was in the horizon, but after 90 minutes of football, Liverpool stamped their authority in the European game and become the only non-Spanish club to knock-out a club from Spain in Europe this season.
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