Liverpool looks like being one European giant too many for Villarreal.
A third Champions League final in five years is in sight for the English club after their 2-0 win in the first leg of the semi-finals on Wednesday, secured after an own-goal by Pervis Estupinan and a poked finish by Sadio Mane in a two-minute span early in the second half.
Villarreal’s fairytale run in the competition might be coming to an end.
A team sitting in seventh place in the Spanish league, and filled with players who failed to make it in England, somehow managed to eliminate European royalty in Juventus and Bayern Munich in the knockout stage.
Liverpool, still on course for an unprecedented quadruple of major trophies, was an even bigger step up and easily overcame the limited challenge of Villarreal.
Still, it took the six-time European champions some time to make the breakthrough.
The goals came in a span of 133 seconds from the 53rd minute, when Jordan Henderson’s cross from the right deflected off the outstretched boot of Estupinan and looped over goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, who flapped at the ball and could only turn it into the net.
Anfield’s power on European nights tends to turn one goal quickly into two, and that’s what transpired again.
Trent Alexander-Arnold fed a pass inside to Mohamed Salah and his slide-rule ball in behind the defense was latched onto by Mane, who toe-poked past Rulli with a sliding finish.
The second leg takes place next Tuesday night and only a major surprise will prevent Villarreal from bowing out at the semi-finals stage, just like in 2006.
Liverpool is looking to win Europe’s biggest prize for the second time in four years under manager Jürgen Klopp, having beaten Spurs 2-0 in the final in 2019 and lost 3-1 to Real Madrid the previous year.
Manchester City takes a 4-3 lead over Real Madrid into the second leg of their semi-final in Spain next Wednesday.
A sea of yellow-clad Villarreal fans — at 5,000 in number, they rose to almost 10 per cent of the population of their home town in eastern Spain — swarmed its way from Liverpool city center to Anfield ahead of the game.
And a rendition of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” — which is the nickname of visitors — was well-received by the lively away contingent before kick-off.
That was as warm as the welcome got.
Liverpool snapped into tackles and pressed high from the first whistle, meaning Villarreal’s players hardly got out of their half all match.
Yet, with Unai Emery setting up his team with his back four screened by a deep-lying and narrow midfield four, Liverpool was initially starved of space in what quickly became tantamount to an attack-versus-defence exercise.
There were plenty of half-chances — Mane headed wide off his face, Mohamed Salah curled over then volleyed over, and Thiago Alcantara smashed a long-range shot off the outside of the post — but Villarreal held out until half-time.
Then it all went wrong.
The two goals came in between two disallowed efforts, by Fabinho then Andrew Robertson, and it was only Liverpool’s players taking their foot off the gas that stopped an even bigger victory.
Klopp used the opportunity to take a number of key players off early, with a potentially tough Premier League game against Newcastle on Saturday sandwiched between the six-day turnaround for the Villarreal games.
Liverpool is a point behind City in the title race, having reached the FA Cup final and already won the League Cup.
The quadruple charge is heading deep into May.