Liverpool booked their third Champions League final in five seasons after a chaotic 3-2 victory in the second leg at Villarreal that saw them progress 5-2 on aggregate.
While the three-goal cushion may seem comfortable, this was a test of their nerves and resilience as a terrible first half by their standards saw their first-leg lead erased by debut goals in the competition of Boulaye Dia and Francis Coquelin.
But the half-time introduction of the £37.5m January signing of Luis Diaz, who reinvigorated 2022 for Jurgen Klopp’s side, was a game-changer, aided and abetted by a distinctly normal goalkeeping performance from host Geronimo Rulli.
The Argentine had a hand, or lack of one, in all three of Liverpool’s goals from Fabinho, Diaz and Sadio Mane in 12 second-half minutes and was guilty of at least two.
Villarreal’s misery was completed when Etienne Capoue was sent off for a second yellow card for a foul on Curtis Jones late on.
Incredibly, this was the first European semi-final first leg that the 2019 winners had won since 1985, having lost the last four and conceding 11 goals in total, but still progressed on three occasions.
Thunderstorms on Monday night had given way to persistent rain during the day, causing some localized flooding, and while that may have dampened the surface inside the Estadio de la Cerámica, it did not affect the atmosphere.
Klopp had warned that his team would have to suffer in parts of this tie, but he couldn’t expect it to start so early and last so long.
The LaLiga team, winner of Juventus and Bayern Munich, did not achieve a shot on goal last week at Anfield but scored the first here in minute 3.
A cross from Pervis Estupinan was met at the far post by Capoue, whose missed shot found Dia to score into an unprotected net.
Villarreal had hoped to become only the second team to come back from two-goal deficit in the first leg in a semi-final, after Liverpool’s famous 3-0 comeback against Barcelona in 2019, and their opponents gave them all the encouragement.
Buoyed by the return of striker Gerard Moreno, they were aggressive and direct, but the way the visitors failed to handle that was surprising.
Naby Keita was preferred over captain Jordan Henderson after a fine goalscoring performance at Newcastle on Saturday, but this was certainly an occasion to be controlled and not cocky.
Liverpool were overrun in midfield, which wasn’t entirely Keita’s fault, and his failure to string together a meaningful sequence of passes only added to the chaotic nature of his performance.
Even when they got behind the Villarreal defence, Jota’s touch was heavy with a through ball from Mohamed Salah and gave Rulli enough chances to reach him. He didn’t claim cleanly, but Salah’s follow-up challenge was ruled a foul.
Prior to this match, Klopp’s side had been behind just 57 minutes in 2022, but by the break they had not only lost 42 minutes, they were even further behind.
They were lucky to escape and concede a penalty when Keita deflected the pass back straight to Moreno, which led to Giovani Lo Celso, but he ran the ball too close to Alisson and the keeper was given the benefit of the doubt as the ball hit him just before the player. passed over him.
But the second goal came four minutes into the break when Capoue’s eye-catching cross at the far post was intercepted by Coquelin, who jumped past Alexander-Arnold to head into the top corner.
Trading Diaz for Jota for the second half made an immediate improvement, allowing Mane to play center where he has done well recently.
And as Liverpool began to increase the pressure, Alexander-Arnold fired a long-range shot just wide of the crossbar as Diaz acrobatically volleyed wide of Mane’s cross.
It finally showed in the 62nd minute when Salah slid into Fabinho and his low, angled shot passed through Rulli at his near post.
The two-goal cushion was restored five minutes later when Diaz’s downward header from an Alexander-Arnold left-footed cross was only half saved and the Liverpool Colombian international inadvertently converted it.
But Rulli’s eventful night was not over, as when he charged 20 yards out of his box to meet Mane, the Senegal international ducked past him and then spread the ball wide to avoid the recovering defender before rolling the ball into an arc. opened.
Liverpool are through to their third final of the season, having won the Carabao Cup and faced Chelsea in the FA Cup one week on Saturday, and this win means they will have played every game available on their schedule.
The relentless search for a quadruple and a seventh European Cup continues.