A perfect combination of Jurgen Klopp and fan passion has helped Liverpool reach the Europa League final, writes Dave Tindall.
No-one does European nights like Liverpool.
That incredible atmosphere the fans generate inside Anfield had already played a big part in us sweeping past Manchester United in the last 16 and Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-finals.
And on Thursday evening, Liverpool’s fans played a blinder yet again.
Poor Villarreal didn’t know what hit them.
By winning the first leg in stoppage time last week, all the Spaniards had succeeded in doing was stirring the pot. Their manic celebrations were understandable but premature and it clearly got under Jurgen Klopp’s skin.
Wait until we get them back to our place, said Klopp, and it was no empty threat.
Villarreal are a small provincial side whose rise has been incredible. They continually punch above their weight and last weekend wrapped up fourth spot in La Liga to secure a place in next year’s Champions League. They’re no mugs.
But in three previous European semi-finals they’d come up short and the contrast with Liverpool shouldn’t be underplayed.
In the Reds, they were taking on a team steeped in a rich and glorious European pedigree. They were taking on history. And they were taking on fans who make the idea of a 12th man not clichéd but something very tangible.
Villarreal were up against a juggernaut and it got to them big time.
Liverpool preyed on their nerves, pressed them, harried them and the flimsy wall of a 1-0 first leg lead came tumbling down as the Reds pounded it from the first minute to the last.
At times, Klopp gives off the demeanour of a mad, cackling scientist let loose in a lab.
But he knows exactly what he’s doing and, in just six months at Liverpool, he’s already devised a winning formula – at least in Europe.
Despite claiming he wasn’t a native speaker and couldn’t find the right words for last night’s performance, Klopp summed up it up perfectly. “Very emotional plus very smart.”
That formula has worked an absolute treat in Europe this season. Perhaps it hasn’t always been very smart (I’m looking at you, Alberto Moreno) but on the whole the players have stuck to the gameplan devised by Klopp and his backroom staff.
But the wildcard, the ‘x’ factor that Liverpool have over almost any other team in Europe is the emotion.
Contrast Liverpool’s high-energy performance with Manchester City’s limp semi-final exit against Real Madrid the previous night. Where City were tentative and unsure, Liverpool were bold and decisive.
While Manuel Pellegrini quietly watched his fate unfold, Klopp was an unstoppable force on the touchline conducting the Anfield orchestra.
On these European nights, Klopp and the supporters are a match absolutely made in heaven.
Thanks to the perfect storm created by the fans, the players and our brilliant, eccentric manager, we’re within 90 minutes of a Champions League spot. Wow.
Super Sturridge, but for how long
As soon as I saw the team sheet for the Villarreal game, I let out an audible ‘yes’.
Had Daniel Sturridge not started the game, I reckoned that would be that in terms of his Liverpool future. He’s already been dropping hints that he won’t be at Anfield forever, and being snubbed for both legs of a European semi-final would surely have been the final nail.
Of course, I also wanted him to start as we needed two goals and he’s still our most lethal marksman.
Sturridge didn’t let us down. He was the fox in the box that led directly to the first and third goals and also slotted home the decisive go-ahead second.
And yet. And yet…….
I’ve always thought selling him would be a disaster, but now I’m not so sure.
To me, it’s glaringly obvious that he’s something of the odd man out when watching this Liverpool team go at it hammer and tong.
While all the other front players – Firmino and Lallana particularly and Origi too – will press, nip in and steal back possession, Sturridge just sticks out a rather hearted-leg. It’s just not his game to try and win the ball or block a clearance.
The dilemma for Klopp is can he, or does he actually need to, indulge such a player?
Sturridge is a rare talent with a superb strike-rate, but goals are coming from everywhere in this Liverpool team so his importance is diluted.
Klopp is working out that Origi can offer a more all-round service and fit in better with the overall masterplan. Before his injury, the Belgian had scored five in five so was more than matching Sturridge for goals too.
The bottom line is that I’d hate to lose Sturridge and hope he’s the man who can fire us to glory in the final against Sevilla.
Ahhhh, it feels good to write those words.
Sevilla have all the recent history in this competition having won it for the last two years and in four of the last 10.
But their opponents in Basel on May 18 are not Middlesbrough (2006), nor Espanyol (2007), nor Benfica (2014) or Dnipro (2015).
It’s Liverpool. Winners of five European Cups/Champions Leagues and three UEFA Cups.
Many of the fans flocking to Switzerland will have seen every single one of those triumphs and you know fine well that Liverpool supporters are going to heavily outnumber their Spanish counterparts.
Add in Klopp’s charisma and a team coming perfectly to the boil after powering past United, Dortmund and Villarreal and all the ingredients are in place to make it another glorious night.