As always for Europa League matches, all data from WhoScored.
(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)
5' – Mignolet does incredibly well to save Mario's tricky deflected shot, the first shot of the match.
7' – Bruno can't get out of the way of Firmino's low cross which Sturridge missed, an unfortunate ricochet own goal to level the tie on aggregate.
46' – A wonderful last ditch block by Lovren on Bakumbu's counter-attack just after halftime.
77' – Denis Suarez's penalty shout, softly pushed by Moreno, is ignored. Had Villarreal gotten it and scored, they'd have taken the lead on away goals.
81' – The only reason Lallana wasn't offside was that Musacchio, embarrassed by Firmino, had one hand on the pitch. Not to mention Sturridge's scuffed shot falling directly to the goal-scorer. Or Firmino's 'was it a scuffed shot or a throughball?' falling directly to a just-onside Sturridge for Liverpool's second.
The narrative is that Liverpool were really good, and Liverpool won, and Liverpool deserved to win. Anfield was utter magic (incidentally, Liverpool haven't lost at home since January 26, 0-1 v Stoke in a cup tie that Liverpool won on penalties, 12 matches ago). Emre Can was a beast. The Lovrenaissance continues apace. Firmino was back to his squint-and-you-kinda-see-Luis-Suarez best. Klopp is a genius.
And those are good narratives! All those things are absolutely true! But football is still a game of fine margins and singular moments, and Liverpool came out on top of those fine margins. This could have been a very different game and/or result if just one of those aforementioned moments, or a couple of others, went the wrong way.
But they didn't.
Did the better team win? Yep. The better team over two legs? Yep. The better team throughout this competition? Yep. But you've watched enough Liverpool matches; I don't need to tell you that the "better team" doesn't always win.
If not for the red card – fully deserved, by the way – the above statistics are a bit closer. 11 of Liverpool's 25 shots, including three clear-cut chances and five on-target, came after Ruiz's dismissal. But, to be fair, Liverpool were already ahead by that point. Villarreal had a full complement of players for 70 minutes and took just six shots. Just four of them came after Bruno's own goal to level the scores on aggregate. They put just two of those six on target. They had just 40% possession.
They weren't good. Liverpool didn't let them be good, at either end of the pitch.
This sums it up nicely.
Rarely interested in heatmaps but Villarreal's is very telling: red hot in their own box, barely anything in ours pic.twitter.com/cgIgxr7Pxu— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) May 6, 2016
But that's the way Villarreal tend to play. Concede possession, defend, counter at pace. Just as impressive as Liverpool's attacking performance was Liverpool's prevention of Villarreal's counter-attacks.
The vast majority of Liverpool's tackles and interceptions came in the middle third of the pitch – four successful tackles and four interceptions from Can, three successful tackles from Lovren, Moreno, and Lallana, three interceptions from Moreno and Milner. A moment in the 13th minute sticks out: Lovren's tackle on Bakumbu just past the halfway line. If Lovren misses, Villarreal are in on goal, three versus two. But Lovren dispossesses the dangerous striker with aplomb, and less than 10 seconds later, Lallana has a clear-cut chance at goal from Milner's throughball, skewing his shot narrowly wide. Or there's also when Lovren did *just enough* on Bakumbu's opportunity in the 45th, forcing a good chance to come from slightly wide and it's tame under pressure. Or in the 46th, when Lovren excellently blocked a similar effort to that which came just before the interval.
Most superlatives will focus on Liverpool's attackers – as happens when the side scores three, and especially because of the mind-bogglingly busy Firmino, at the epicenter of all three goals – as well as Can, not just available just two weeks after he was "probably out for the rest of the season" but massive in midfield, going forward and dropping back, the textbook definition of a box-to-box midfielder. But you can't forget the defense. You can't forget anyone. As against Dortmund, it was one of those matches where if you're rating players, absolutely everyone's at least a seven. But, yes, Lovren in defense, Can in midfield, and Firmino, Lallana, and Sturridge in attack were the stars on show.
Villarreal are averaging 12 shots allowed per match in La Liga. Liverpool took 15 last week, admittedly mostly not-great opportunities, and 25 (!!!) yesterday. Liverpool have taken more than 25 shots just four times in the league and Europa League this season 35 v Kazan, 28 v West Brom (sigh), 26 v Leicester, and 37 v Everton (lol). Leicester, below par that day, notwithstanding, the rest of those sides defend like Villarreal defend. Unlike in the previous leg, where eight of Liverpool's 15 shots came from outside the box (with just four in the Danger Zone), 15 of Liverpool's 25 shots came from inside the box, with 10 in the Danger Zone (including both of Liverpool's goals as well as the own goal).
In the three previous knockout rounds – 540 minutes against Napoli (second in Serie A), Bayer Leverkusen (third in the Bundesliga), and Sparta Prague (second in Czech Liga) – Villarreal allowed just three clear-cut chances. Three. Two in the 4-2 win at Sparta Prague, one v Napoli. Liverpool created five yesterday.
Liverpool still need to do better with their finishing – clear-cut chance or not – but creating good opportunities has also been an issue this season, especially in the league. Conversely, Villarreal has been excellent in limiting opponents' good opportunities. Neither was the case yesterday.
Shot creation? Excellent. Shot quantity? Excellent. Shot quality? Excellent. And this isn't the first time we've seen Liverpool at their best in the Europa League.
Aside from Augsburg – and no offense meant – Liverpool have faced a slate of opponents fit for the Champions League. At least two of the last three opponents will be in that competition next season. United are fifth in the Premier League, Dortmund are comfortably second in the Bundesliga, and Villarreal are comfortably fourth in La Liga.
And, the-definition-of-miraculous comeback against Dortmund taken into account, Liverpool deserved to beat every one of them.
Once again, Liverpool rose to the occasion. Liverpool came damned close to its full potential when the lights were brightest and backs were against the wall. How often can we say that about the Liverpool sides we've seen for the last, say, nine years? You know, since Liverpool were last in a European semi-final. The domestic cup finals in 2011-12, a handful of big league matches in the second-half of 2013-14? That's about it.
Liverpool have now reached their second cup final in Klopp's seven months in charge, after failing to reach any since May 2012. That's nuts. Liverpool continue to frustrate in the league, Liverpool have been without different key players through injury at every stage of the campaign, Klopp has yet to add a single signing of his own to this disappointing-for-a-season-and-some-more squad, and Liverpool still have its second chance to lift a trophy this season.
Now it's up to Liverpool to surpass their performance in that last cup final.