Entering the second leg with what seemed a cushy 2-0 advantage, Liverpool were rocked by two first half goals in Spain to leave the semifinal on a knife’s edge at halftime.
But the Reds were a different beast after Jurgen Klopp’s dressing room chat and scored three second half goals for a 3-2 win and 5-2 on aggregate.
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Villarreal’s goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli melted down under pressure, allowing Fabinho and Luis Diaz to score between his legs and then inexplicably charging up the pitch as Sadio Mane coolly rounded him to score Liverpool’s third.
“He’s had a nightmare,” former England international Alan Smith said in commentary.
“He’s always appeared to be the weak link in this Villarreal side.”
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Etienne Capoue was sent off late for a second yellow card as Villarreal lost their composure.
“Rulli’s lost his head and some of the players have followed him,” Smith said.
Former Manchester United and Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Bosnich said on Stan Sport that he would “be absolutely devastated” to concede three goals in that manner.
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Boulaye Dia and Francis Coquelin scored Villarreal’s first half goals before super-sub Diaz inspired Liverpool after being introduced by Klopp at the break.
Based in a city of just 50,000 people in southern Spain, Villarreal had eliminated Juventus in the round of 16 and Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals.
Liverpool will meet the winner of Thursday’s Manchester City vs Real Madrid semifinal in the May 29 (AEST) decider in Paris.
City hold a 4-3 advantage after a thrilling first leg in Manchester.
The victory also keeps alive Liverpool’s hopes of a ‘quadruple’ – winning all four major trophies in one season.
“We made it tricky for ourselves,” Klopp said.
“But that’s life – it’s all about how you react when things go wrong.
“We didn’t play football at all (in the first half) but respect to Villarreal.
“Whoever it will be (in the final) it will be massive.”
The visitors were dominant in the first leg but looked lost as Villarreal came out pressing early.
The hosts won almost every 50-50 ball and stayed near the Liverpool area without giving up much space for counterattacks.
It didn’t take long for Villarreal to cut into the first leg deficit as Dia opened the scoring from close range after a pass by Capoue in the third minute.
Villarreal wanted a penalty kick after Giovani Lo Celso collided with Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson but a few moments later it got the second goal with a header by former Arsenal midfielder Coquelin into the top corner after a well placed cross from the right by Capoue.
The Liverpool defence looked flat footed on both goals, leaving space for the Villarreal players to finish.
The English club improved significantly in the second half.
It nearly pulled closer when Trent Alexander-Arnold’s shot deflected off a defender and hit the crossbar in the 55th minute, and the first goal came in the 62nd with a low shot by Fabinho that went through Rulli’s legs.
Liverpool took advantage of Villarreal’s letdown and Diaz equalised with a 67th minute header.
Mane then got the go ahead goal on a break in the 74th after getting past Rulli outside the area and shooting into the open net.
“Their first goal hurt us a lot,” Villarreal defender Raul Albiol said.
“In the second half they were better than us. We couldn’t maintain the same rhythm than in the first half and that cost us.”
Returning to the Champions League may be hard for Villarreal as it’s currently out of the qualification zone in the Spanish league.
This was only the fourth appearance in Europe’s top competition for the club.
It had also made the semifinals in 2006, losing to Arsenal.
It was a quarterfinalist in 2009, losing to Arsenal again.
With Villarreal’s elimination, Shakhtar Donetsk is set to earn an automatic spot directly into the group stage next season.
The berth was freed up because the winner this season will be either Liverpool, Madrid or City, who already qualified through their league’s position.
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