Jurgen Klopp steers Liverpool to cusp of European glory with win vs. Villarreal
LIVERPOOL, England -- Three thoughts from Anfield, where Liverpool defeated Villarreal 3-0 to book a spot in the Europa League final.
1. Klopp leading Liverpool toward European glory
On nights like this, it feels like the glory days are returning to Liverpool. Their remarkable Europa League run will take them all the way to Basel for the May 18 final. Like Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund before them, Villarreal wilted in the intensity of Anfield.
The Spanish side lost 3-0 in the game, 3-1 in the tie. Villarreal had already booked their Champions League spot after last Sunday's win at Valencia secured them fourth place in La Liga, but a place in a first European final remains elusive. Ten years after a Champions League semi-final defeat to Arsenal, English opposition proved their undoing again.
But this victory means Anfield will stage Champions League football again next season if Liverpool beat Sevilla in Switzerland. England's most decorated club in continental competition are offering reminders of their storied past.
Jurgen Klopp feels like a manager in Liverpool's truest traditions, and seven months after his arrival, he has joined an elite group of five -- Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez -- who took Liverpool to a European final. It is their first in nine years and while Manchester City denied Klopp a maiden trophy in the Capital One Cup final, his debut campaign could end with the glow of silverware.
Villarreal arrived having kept three consecutive clean sheets. They were breached within seven minutes, and by one of their own, Bruno Soriano inadvertently putting Liverpool ahead. Yet Marcelino's side defended with more organisation thereafter until Daniel Sturridge added a second. Adam Lallana completed the scoring, giving Liverpool reward for their frantic, frenzied football. They overwhelmed their opponents, completing a hat trick of wonderful European nights in the spring of 2016.
Anfield was at its loudest. It retains a capacity to intimidate, as Villarreal discovered when their team coach arrived amid a sky of red smoke. They cracked under the pressure, Victor Ruiz picking up two needless yellow cards. Liverpool's task now is to cause another Spanish side as many problems at a neutral venue.
2. Sturridge shows the value of a specialist striker
Managers are judged on their choices when it matters most. Klopp got his most significant, most debated decision very right. With Sturridge playing a part in all three goals that took Liverpool to Basel, Klopp's judgment proved correct.
Benched for Liverpool's three previous European games, Sturridge started on Thursday. This had been described as the biggest dilemma of Klopp's reign. Resolving it actually could have been comparatively simple. With Divock Origi sidelined and Liverpool trailing on aggregate, picking Sturridge made sense even for a manager who does not rank as his biggest fan.
Sturridge may not gegenpress as Klopp would like, but he provides a penalty-box presence and that proved crucial when Liverpool took the lead. As Roberto Firmino directed in a low cross from the left, Soriano expected Sturridge to apply the finishing touch. Instead, the ball bounced in off the Villarreal captain. The finest forwards have a nuisance value and this was a case in point. Klopp has a habit of preferring Firmino as the furthest man forward, but false nines, by their very definition, spend less time goal-hanging.
And redeploying Firmino in a deeper role had its benefits, too. The Brazilian won the ball back and fed it through to Sturridge when he scored Liverpool's second. It was taken with assurance, Sturridge's shot going in under Villarreal goalkeeper Alphonse Areola. He had tested the Frenchman with a fierce shot 10 minutes earlier. That effort was repelled. His next was not. Klopp looked solemn. For once, this most expressive of managers must have been celebrating internally.
Sturridge's fourth goal in five games was followed by an assist. The influential Firmino crossed, Sturridge attempted a shot and Lallana deftly flicked it in. It capped a catalytic display. The only criticism of Sturridge could be that he was slow to close Areola down, Lallana pointing where he should have run while a static Sturridge allowed the goalkeeper to clear. Yet an illustration of Sturridge's potency showed that Firmino may be better supporting a specialist striker.
3. Soldado's unhappy England return
Roberto Soldado may have arrived back on English shores with a point to prove. While he can point to Villarreal's lofty league position and fine European run as evidence of his ability, it is safe to say this was not an occasion when he won over his doubters. Rather, they may have grown in number.
Tottenham's former record signing was a £26 million misfit during two seasons at White Hart Lane. Indeed, his 2013 move to Spurs marked a tipping point in his career. A striker who averaged at least a goal every other game for Getafe and Valencia, Soldado has become a forward who has scored fewer than one in four for Tottenham and Villarreal. He only threatened to score once at Anfield, with a header that flashed wide. He has mutated into more of a creator this season, however, and he chested the ball into Mario Gaspar's path when the right-back drew an early save from Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet with a deflected drive.
That was the good part of his evening. The bad and the ugly followed. As Villarreal started to lose their cool, Soldado took a swipe at Dejan Lovren after being fouled by the Croatian. Referee Viktor Kassai, who began in lenient mood, settled for a ticking off when many others would have brandished a card. Soldado's exaggerated reaction got Nathaniel Clyne cautioned a couple of minutes later for a tackle on him. He joined the right-back in the book for a hack at Philippe Coutinho as he and Denis Suarez seemed in a private battle to self-combust first.
While each calmed down a little at half-time, Soldado was removed for the first-leg scorer, Adrian Lopez, when Villarreal needed a goal. Before then, his ineffectual display and his regular complaints when challenged showed he was struggling to cope with the pace and the intensity of the game. It offered an explanation why he failed in the Premier League.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.