Liverpool soared to a 3-0 victory over Villarreal at Anfield to secure a 3-1 aggregate triumph and book a Europa League final against holders Sevilla. On another memorable Anfield night, it took less than seven minutes for Liverpool to wipe out Adrian Lopez's strike from the dying seconds of last week's first leg. Daniel Sturridge missed the chance to turn in a Roberto Firmino cross, only for the ball to bounce into the net off midfielder Bruno Soriano. Sturridge was able to get the job done himself in the 63rd minute to put Liverpool ahead in the tie for the first time, sliding home another Firmino assist via a touch off the goalkeeper and the post.
There was to be no way back for Villarreal. Defender Victor Ruiz was shown a second yellow card with 19 minutes remaining to leave Liverpool firmly in the driving seat. And with nine minutes left on the clock, Adam Lallana, once more following a setup from Firmino, found himself right in front of goal and onside to ensure Liverpool were no longer vulnerable to a sole away goal.
Having been left out of the first leg and been the subject of much of the pre-match discussion, centering on his place in the team on Thursday and at the club next season, Sturridge’s crucial strike may take the headlines. It was Firmino, though, who was the star, playing his part in all three goals and delivering a powerful response to Dunga on the day that the Brazil coach left him out of his Copa America Centenario squad.
Yet this was win was about another superb, committed team performance from Liverpool. While it lacked the incredible rollercoaster drama of the last-gasp 4-3 triumph over Borussia Dortmund at Anfield in the quarterfinals, this was a far more controlled display.
Villarreal, already with a Champions League berth guaranteed via a fourth place finish in La Liga, offered only the very occasional threat to a disciplined Liverpool backline. For the Merseysiders, it has been a season of transition under Klopp, as illustrated by sitting eighth in the Premier League. But it could yet end with a trophy in Basel and a precious place in the Champions League to look forward to for next season.
To do that they will have to avoid the same fate that befell them in the Capital One Cup final, when going down to Manchester City. They will also have to get the better of a Sevilla team that has made the Europa League their own in the past decade. Already with four trophies to their name in that time, the Spanish outfit will be vying for a third consecutive success in the competition on May 18.
But if Liverpool can replicate the performance they put in on Thursday then they will have every chance. Anfield was in full voice once again before kickoff, and the opening minutes only gave the fans cause for further excitement.
Villarreal, looking to book a place in their first ever European final, looked nervy out of the blocks, particularly goalkeeper Alphonse Areola. A couple of early fumbles were followed by his parry of a Nathaniel Clyne cross finding its way to Firmino, whose cross bundled in off Soriano.
Lallana should have put Liverpool in front in the tie just six minutes later. James Milner’s fine low early ball into the box found the former Southampton man perfectly but he failed to make clean contact with his finish.
The only thing missing from the first-half performance was the lack of a greater goal threat, but that would arrive in style after the interval. Villarreal’s danger man Cedric Bakambu had missed two openings either side of halftime, first hitting a tame shot and then seeing his effort superbly blocked by Dejan Lovren. They were to be Villarreal’s only two real chances.
When Firmino managed to hook the ball into Sturridge’s path in the box, the striker’s finish left some hearts in mouths before rolling over the line. Just one moment of real concern arrived for the hosts, when Alberto Moreno was perhaps fortunate to escape a clumsy challenge on Denis Suarez in the Liverpool box.
But it would be hard to argue Liverpool’s superiority over the course of the two legs. That was secured on the scoresheet when Firmino’s run and cutback down the left was scuffed toward goal by Clyne and Lallana was played onside by Mateo Musacchio, who had tumbled on the byline, allowing his hand to rest crucially on the pitch.