Liverpool have Villarreal and Geronimo Rulli to thank for second-half turnaround as defensive worries surface

Villarreal 2-3 Liverpool (2-5 agg) – (Dia 3′, Coquelin 41′ | Fabinho 62′, Díaz 67′, Mané 74′)

ESTADIO DE LA CERAMICA — This is the stage of the season that causes a schism between the partisan and the neutral. The latter demands drama, wishing to feast upon the elaborate endings to storylines that have been cooking for months.

The partisan can only take so much drama; give Liverpool supporters formulaic victory any day. When you’re pursuing four trophies in the same season there’s only so much mania a soul can take. They got 70 minutes more than they expected and Jurgen Klopp would have liked.

Luis Diaz was Liverpool’s game-changer in a game that shouldn’t have needed to be changed. For all the fine work Diogo Jota has collated since his move from Wolves, it would be a shock – and surely a mistake – if Diaz didn’t start the final in Paris. How is it that the newest member of Liverpool’s squad already seems to personify his manager more than most others?

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The rain in Spain falls on the plane and every square inch of terrain. The downfalls on Tuesday were biblical and relentless, thunder rolling across a bruised, angry sky.

In Valencia, tourists huddled under umbrellas. In Villarreal, Liverpool supporters simply sung a little louder and splashed in puddles with a little more vigor. Perfect weather for a Yellow Submarine, you might say. For a while, you were right.

Unai Emery, whose team were much maligned after the first leg, promised they would be different on their own patch. It’s hard to conceive of a team more changed in attitude, style, intent and energy from one game to another.

Emery’s view was that each tie are two halves of the same match. Attack Liverpool at Anfield and you will get picked apart. But start relentlessly to seize upon any subconscious complacency and, he believed, you can trouble Liverpool. Just like they troubled Bayern Munich and Juventus.

And how. Villarreal, this band of Premier League just-not-quites (no, seriously, Etienne Capoue, Giovani Lo Celso, Juan Foyth and Francis Coquelin), younger want-to-bes and the irrepressible Gerard Moreno, were sensational.

They pressed Liverpool high up the pitch, fought in central midfield with ten times as much energy as they did at Anfield and were grisly and resolute at the back. If it meant that they were labored in the second half and so inevitably fell towards their own goal, it’s hard to criticise that either. Sometimes reality just defeats you.

For all the home side’s early excellence, it was more than matched by Liverpool’s remarkable ineptitude in the first half. It’s one thing being flustered by an opponent pressing harder than you expected – that happens. It’s quite another to respond to that pressure not by sticking to your guns, as Jurgen Klopp continually preaches, but by losing your heads.

There were individual issues. Ibrahima Konate launched the ball forward too far too often, the false economy of attempting to relieve pressure that only allows it to accumulate by handing back possession. Naby Keita, the surprise selection in Liverpool’s starting XI over Jordan Henderson, was desperate before the break.

Klopp will have demanded control; Keita repeatedly ceded it with poor decision-making. I’m afraid it’s also time for another installation of the “Trent Alexander-Arnold as a defender” discourse. It’s one thing to lose a header at the back post, another entirely to fail to spot the run and so not even jump for it.

It’s hard to know how much to credit Liverpool for their response, given that they were simply restoring the natural order of things. They did indeed look transformed after half-time, presumably after some dressing-room home truths from a coach who can be bad cop as well as good.

Klopp would presumably prefer his team to perform in both halves between now and the end of May, but if there was one fixture where Liverpool could afford to clock in part-time, it was this.

They were also assisted by Geronimo Rulli – a man whose forename is shouted by people as they jump out of planes landed to earth with a far more hefty bump.

Over both legs, Rulli has performed like a man who is obsessing so much about making a positive difference that he forgets that simple competence comes first. If he learns one thing from Tuesday evening, it is not to try and beat Sadio Mane in a foot race.

Still, let’s at least end on a positive. In hindsight, Klopp will stress the importance of suffering and surviving to reflect upon how they invited angst.

It can serve as a reminder that no opponent can be taken for granted, no dominance assumed just because. His success at Liverpool was founded upon a principle of meritocracy and you get what you put in.

And in Diaz, Liverpool have a ludicrously talented forward who seems, like the other Liverpool Luis before him, to delight in dragging his team on through a combination of fine technique and infinite will to win. For longer than any of us could comprehend, Liverpool were stopped in their tracks. They’ll still take some stopping in any competition they play.

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