Villarreal in control of Europa League semifinal after late winner vs. Liverpool
VILLARREAL, Spain -- Three thoughts from El Madrigal, where a late winner gave Villarreal a 1-0 victory over Liverpool in their Europa League semifinal first leg.
1. Late Adrian goal makes Villarreal big favourites
Adrian Lopez's injury-time winner saw Villarreal beat Liverpool 1-0 on Thursday night at Villarreal's El Madrigal to take a big advantage in their Europa League semifinal.
A tight, tactical first half resulted in just a few clear chances and no goals, while the second period saw both Villarreal's Cedric Bakambu and Liverpool's Roberto Firmino hit the woodwork.
Just as it seemed the teams were heading toward next Thursday's second leg at Anfield with the tie neatly balanced, Villarreal struck in the 92nd minute and now look big favourites to make what would be their first European final.
Previous to that moment, the night's best entertainment had come pregame. The modest club that resides in the town of Villarreal (population 50,000) are known as the "The Yellow Submarine," a nickname given to the club by a local priest in the 1960s, and the Beatles song of the same name was played before kickoff to the around 4,000 Liverpool supporters in the 25,000-seat stadium. The friendship between the clubs was also on show as the home fans unveiled a banner expressing solidarity with Liverpool fans after an emotional week at the club.
Villarreal just about edged the first half in terms of chances, as the two teams looked to move the ball around and probe for openings, rather than throw too many players forward.
Liverpool's Joe Allen had the best early chance when a cross was deflected into his path, but he shot straight at Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo from 12 yards. At the other end, former Tottenham striker Roberto Soldado twice came close, but both times was unable to test visiting stopper Simon Mignolet.
Just after half-time the deadlock was almost broken, but Bakambu's flicked header from a corner hit the outside of the near post. Liverpool were also ruing their luck when Firmino's 15-yarder also bounced off the post and away to safety.
Bakambu had a glorious late chance, after a slip by visiting left-back Alberto Moreno, but Simon Mignolet saved well. From the resulting corner, Liverpool broke and Moreno went clear, but his shot flew high and wide.
Moreno was then out of position when Bruno Soriano's ball behind the defence was superbly controlled by Denis Suarez, who ran clear, drew Mignolet and unselfishly squared for substitute Adrian to tap home to the empty net.
That was about the final action of the game, and the home fans erupted. Villarreal have gone through in every one of the 21 European ties in which they have won the first leg and Klopp's team face a stiff task in turning this around next week.
2. Liverpool miss central presence in attack
Without the injured Divock Origi, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson, and with Mamadou Sakho suspended, Klopp chose Kolo Toure at centre-back, went with Allen and Lucas Leiva in midfield, and left strikers Daniel Sturridge and Christian Benteke on the bench.
Firmino was the central attacker in a 4-3-3, and the Brazilian was constantly on the move, looking to drop deep and link with his teammates. This meant that Liverpool could keep the ball well, but were often playing in front of Villarreal's well-organised two lines of four.
The visitors were getting a lot of joy down their right-hand side, with James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne combining well. Clyne in particular had plenty of chances to cross, but there was rarely an obvious target to aim for, and his delivery was often poor.
Jordon Ibe came on for Coutinho at half-time, but the shape of the game did not change. Near the hour mark Firmino did well to find space in the box, and was picked out by Milner, and his shot arrowed past Asenjo but bounced back off the post.
Apparently happy with how things were developing, Klopp declined to use either Sturridge and Benteke from the bench until very late. Benteke was sent on with just three minutes remaining, in what seemed like just a move to run down the clock. But then Villarreal substitute Adrian struck, and the travelling Liverpool fans were left wondering if Klopp's conservatism had cost his side.
3. Bruno runs game from midfield
This season's Villarreal side is quite different from previous teams whose standout players were elaborate passers such as Juan Roman Riquelme and Santi Carzola. The symbol of the current team is holding midfielder Bruno, who was again excellent in almost all he did on the night.
Bruno was comfortably pulling the strings in midfield in what was his club-record 61st European appearance for Villarreal. The 31-year-old has spent his entire career with his local club, even staying when they were relegated a few seasons back to help them achieve promotion that very next season.
His influence was clear here on and off the ball. In possession he often looked for Soldado, with his quick free kick creating one chance, and another clever ball forward leading to a 20-yard curler just wide. Bruno was also screening defence, especially keeping close to Firmino when he dropped deep to try and link play, or Coutinho when he drifted infield.
To Bruno's left, Suarez was not in the game much, but did show moments of skill in nutmegging both Allen and Milner in tight areas. Liverpool seemed to have succeeded in bottling the pair up enough to get away with the draw until injury time.
Bruno's superb ball forward found Suarez in space behind Moreno, and the Villarreal captain then had the perfect view as the ball was worked to Adriano to tap home. It was fitting that the game's best player had been involved in the move which has tilted the balance of the tie firmly in his side's favour.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan