How Liverpool’s dream came true and Villarreal’s failure

VILLARREAL, Spain — On the corner of the Estadio de la Cerámica, which was totally at the mercy of the elements, fans began to unfurl their scarves. On the scoreboard behind them, the clock had passed 90 minutes. On the field in front of them, Villarreal was on loan in the Champions League.

It was then that they began to sing. As Liverpool enjoyed a rare moment of calm after a night’s storm and put the finishing touches on their 3-2 victory, the rest of the stadium took note of what was happening in the corner and picked up the tune. They also held up their scarves, a gesture of defiance, loyalty, and gratitude.

And then, when the whistle blew and it was all over, as the Villareal players walked sadly through the stadium, heads down and eyes raw, the pace picked up. The scarves began to twist and turn, the mood shifting from regret for what had been taken to celebration of all that was left. in the pain, they found pride.

In fact, how much it hurt was perhaps the best measure of how close Villarreal had come to Unai Emery. This team wasn’t supposed to be in the Champions League semi-finals, not really; the very structure of European football’s elite competition is designed to make it extremely unlikely that a team of its stature could make it that far in the tournament.

Certainly, Villarreal were not supposed to have a chance of getting into the second leg. He had been, by common consent, summarily dispatched at Anfield last week, his limitations exposed by the depth of Liverpool’s resources and the extent of their firepower and the sheer gravity of Jürgen Klopp’s side. The second leg was, more than anything, an administrative hurdle to clear, a form to fill out.

Villarreal, the town, is a curious place to stage a game of this magnitude: a satellite of nearby Castellón, above all, calm and refined and, after a day under a torrential downpour, almost deserted. Snippets of songs, both in English and Spanish, echoed through the streets.

If the sense of occasion that normally accompanies the most seismic games on the European calendar was missing outside, it was palpable inside. For the first time, Villarreal had arranged a mosaic: a blue submarine on a yellow background, with the club’s motto, Endavant, highlighted in giant letters. The public address announcer spoke of believing in comebacks.

Any doubt would have been turned in three minutes, as Boulaye Dia finished off a not-quite-intentional cross from Étienne Capoue, and the Ceramic seemed to melt. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. Liverpool, so flawless and fluid in a 2-0 win six days ago, struggled to complete a pass.

By halftime, his rhythm had been broken and his confidence sapped and then, just when he thought it might happen, his lead was completely gone. Capoue crossed, this time on purpose. Francis Coquelin headed home. Villarreal’s bench emptied onto the field, coaches and substitutes and various assistants could hardly believe what they were seeing.

At that point, tied 2-2 at the halfway point in the second leg, the Villarreal players were within arm’s reach. The final was there, right there, and they could take a place within it. Villarreal would be the smallest town, by some distance, to send a team to the biggest game in soccer.

In an era defined and designed by Goliath, it would be this team, built with very little money, that would do what Ajax, Monaco and RB Leipzig could not and went all the way. And they could do so by recording their own entry in the ever-growing book of dazzling Champions League comebacks, a miracle of their own, just like Barcelona (2017), Roma (2018), Liverpool (2019) and Real Madrid. (passim).

Hope and belief exist at different points on the same axis. Villarreal, in the space of 45 minutes, had gone through it all.

And then, just as it was there, within reach, it was taken from her. Klopp brought out a $45 million striker, Diogo Jota, and introduced another, Luis Diaz. The change changed the momentum irrevocably. Trent Alexander-Arnold hit the bar. Diaz attempted a spectacular Chilean. And then Mohamed Salah slipped past Fabinho and his shot twisted between Géronimo Rulli’s legs. At that moment, everything was over.

Five minutes later, Díaz had scored, deflecting to head a cross under Rulli. Five minutes after that, Sadio Mané had put Liverpool ahead on the night, taking advantage of an Alexander-Arnold pass, past Rulli as he scrambled out of his goal into midfield, then calmly rolling the ball into the net. .

Perhaps, in hindsight, it would have been easier if Villarreal hadn’t heard that siren song of possibility. Perhaps it would have been easier to go quietly, to succumb to the inevitable. That could have hurt less. But then the journey is not defined by the destination.

Villarreal beat Juventus in Turin in the round of 16. He silenced Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals. And it produced 45 minutes that saw Liverpool – a team now on course for its third Champions League final in five years, a team seeking an unprecedented and near-impossible clean sweep of trophies – so scrambled that when Klopp asked his assistant, Peter Krawietz, to identify a “single case” of good play from the first half and show it to the players for inspiration, returned and told him there was nothing to find.

And it did it all on a budget that’s a fraction of its rivals, in an ecosystem where the big beasts consume most of the oxygen, and with a patchwork crew of discards and discards. There was a common root for pride and pain: sometimes a painful wound can feel like a badge of honor.

“Football is beautiful,” said Villarreal captain Raúl Albiol. Over time, he knows, what will matter is not that Villarreal stayed 45 minutes from a Champions League final, but that they were able to stay 45 minutes from a Champions League final.

“This was a loss,” he said, “but we will always remember this race.”

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