THE fury on social media could not match the fume on the team plane. Margins. The smallest of margins. One minute away from an accomplished European away performance against a Villarreal side incredibly formidable in front of their own fans, the final 60 seconds at Estadio El Madrigal instead twisted a tackle knife in Liverpool’s gut.
Heading back to John Lennon Airport, the Reds were not sulking, they were seething. They were not feeling sorry for themselves, they were incensed that they’d have to wait a week to exact revenge. Liverpool were well fired up. Liverpool wanted to fast forward to this Thursday night.
Under the floodlights. At Anfield.
Jurgen Klopp: “My first thought as everyone around me was celebrating was: ‘Sorry, but it is not over, you have to come to Anfield too and we will be ready.'”
Adam Lallana: “We still have massive confidence about taking them back to Anfield. It will be a completely different game. The manager told us: do not worry. He said ‘be disappointed for five minutes but no longer — wait unit we get them back home.’ He told us that we have got the fans, and then he said ‘we will make it another magical night next week.’ Anfield will be bouncing. Trust me: I cannot wait for next week.”
While the Twitterverse was losing its shit about the manager’s approach against a team that had already beaten Real Madrid, Sevilla, Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen and Atletico Madrid, while also holding Barcelona at home this season, I was lost in how aggressive, impassioned and inflamed Liverpool were.
Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we? Klopp, having poured through hours of footage and analysis of Villarreal at home, takes the absolute right approach in the first leg. All the whining afterwards to the tune of ‘it’s dead easy Jurgs, just start with your best players’ is an understandable reaction, but an imperfect one.
The Gareth Bale-Cristiano Ronaldo-Karim Benzema axis was completely nullified by Villarreal in December. In March, the mightier Leo Messi-Luis Suarez-Neymar attacking triumvirate could only secure a draw in the 25, 000-seater home of the Yellow Submarine by virtue of the Brazilian winning and converting an incorrectly awarded penalty.
Best players in the world, lads.
Marcelino’s men thrive on teams coming to their turf and being expansive. They want you attack. In fact, they get on their knees praying you show up not showing them the respect they deserve. Because when you do that, you’re playing right into their hands, right into the system they know like the back of their hands.
“BUT THEY WERE THERE FOR THE TAKING.”
“THEY WERE AVERAGE”
“THEY WERE ASKING TO BE BEAT”
Villarreal didn’t look as formidable as they usually are at home, because of Liverpool’s approach. Because, as Klopp warned them in his pre-match presser, the Reds wouldn’t play they way the hosts expected and wanted.
After that briefing, one of the local journalists had asked me to circle Liverpool’s travelling squad, and while doing that, she asked me what I thought of Villarreal. “Probably the biggest challenge yet because the Reds have to rely on organisation and the defence rather than emotion and attack, which are their strengths. Your team is annoyingly tough to beat at home,” was my response.
She was surprised by that analysis, not because she doubted Villarreal, but because she couldn’t believe there was no arrogance or underestimation in the answer. “If in La Liga you are not Barca or Real, or these days Atleti, you can’t be that good,” she said sarcastically.
Villarreal had not lost a home game this season in the Europa League. They had conceded just one in front of their own fans.
But on 75 minutes, my head goes. Have I missed Daniel Sturridge being substituted on in the split-seconds I have to look away from the pitch to type?
No, no, I haven’t.
On 79 minutes, I’m convinced I must have missed it. I turn to my left and, a bit embarrassed, ask ’Sturridge hasn’t come on, has he?’
It’s not all in my head?!
I shouldn’t have really been sheepish because:
a. So many convinced themselves it was the striker coming on for Phil Coutinho despite Jordon Ibe clearly standing by the substitution board.
b. Klopp surely wouldn’t have built such a great platform and not thrown on the best man for the hahaha-we’ve-done-yous-here-and-got-our-away-goal job.
Anyway, you know the answer to that second point.
But, margins. The smallest of margins. Klopp and his backroom team, who have sat through more analysis than we can imagine, who have a semi-final record you can’t argue with, know exactly why they don’t make that substitution even if the rest of us scratch our heads for all of time.
The mistake in the 92nd minute can’t be planned for, can’t be foreseen. It’s a reminder that Liverpool are still flawed, Liverpool are still under construction. And yet they’ve already been to one final under this manager in his debut season and are here, looking to make amends and line-up at St-Jakob Park on May 18.
As Klopp said: “Be disappointed for five minutes but no longer — wait unit we get them back home.”
He believes in the magical nights at Anfield. The players do, too. They’re up for it. They’ve been up for it since the final whistle at El Madrigal.
Do you believe? Are you up for it?
Villarreal showed the Reds what they can do in their backyard. Tomorrow night, everyone needs to unite and let them know THIS IS ANFIELD.