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How Liverpool’s Dream Was Delivered, and Villarreal’s Dashed

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VILLARREAL, Spain — Within the corner of the Estadio de la Céramica, the one left totally on the mercy of the weather, the fans began to unfurl their scarves. On the scoreboard at their backs, the clock had ticked beyond 90 minutes. On the sphere in front of them, Villarreal was on borrowed time within the Champions League.

It was then that they began to sing. As Liverpool enjoyed a rare moment of calm after a storm of a night, and put the ending touches on its 3-2 victory, the remaining of the stadium noticed what was happening within the corner, and picked up the tune. They held their scarves aloft, too, a gesture of defiance, and loyalty, and gratitude.

After which, when the whistle blew and it was throughout, as Villareal’s players walked mournfully across the stadium, heads bowed and eyes raw, the tempo quickened. The scarves began to twist and to whirl, the mood shifting from regret at what had been snatched away to celebration of all that remained. Within the pain, they found pride.

Indeed, quite how much it hurt was, perhaps, the perfect measure of quite how close Unai Emery’s Villarreal had come. This team was not alleged to be within the Champions League semifinals, not likely; the very structure of European soccer’s elite competition is built to make it vanishingly unlikely that a team of its stature could travel this deep into the tournament.

Villarreal was definitely not alleged to stand a likelihood going into the second leg. It had, by common consensus, been summarily dispatched at Anfield last week, its limitations exposed by the depth of Liverpool’s resources and the scope of its firepower and the sheer gravity of Jürgen Klopp’s team. The return leg was, greater than anything, an administrative hurdle to be cleared, a form to be accomplished.

Villarreal, the town, is a curious place to stage a game of this magnitude: a satellite of nearby Castéllon, greater than anything, quiet and refined and, after a day spent under a torrential downpour, almost entirely deserted. Snatches of songs, in each English and Spanish, echoed across the streets.

If the sense of occasion that ordinarily accompanies probably the most seismic games in Europe’s calendar was missing outside, it was palpable inside. For the primary time, Villarreal had arranged a mosaic: a blue submarine against a yellow background, the club’s slogan, Endavant, picked out in giant letters. The general public address announcer talked about believing in comebacks.

Any doubters would have been converted inside three minutes, as Boulaye Dia tapped home from Étienne Capoue’s not entirely intentional cross, and the Céramica appeared to melt. Abruptly, every little thing felt possible. Liverpool, so seamless and so smooth in a 2-0 victory six days ago, struggled to finish a pass.

By halftime, its rhythm had been broken and its confidence sapped after which, just when it thought it’d make it through, its advantage had disappeared completely. Capoue crossed, on purpose this time. Francis Coquelin headed home. Villarreal’s bench emptied onto the sphere, coaches and substitutes and varied assistants all scarcely in a position to imagine what they were seeing.

At that moment, tied at 2-2 halfway through the second leg, Villarreal’s players stood inside touching distance. The ultimate was there, right there, and so they could seize a spot inside it. Villarreal can be the smallest town, by far, to send a team to the largest game in soccer.

In an era defined and designed by Goliath, it might be this team, constructed on a shoestring, that did what Ajax and Monaco and RB Leipzig couldn’t and made all of it the way in which. And so they could do it by etching their very own entry within the Champions League’s ever-expanding book of eye-watering comebacks, a miracle to call its own, identical to Barcelona (2017), Roma (2018), Liverpool (2019) and Real Madrid (passim).

Hope and belief exist at different points on the identical axis. Villarreal, within the space of 45 minutes, had traveled all the way in which along it.

After which, just when it was there, inside their grasp, it was taken away. Klopp took off one $45 million forward, Diogo Jota, and introduced one other, Luis Díaz. The switch modified the momentum irrevocably. Trent Alexander-Arnold hit the bar. Díaz tried a spectacular overhead kick. After which Mohamed Salah slipped Fabinho through and his shot squirmed through Géronimo Rulli’s legs. In that moment, it was throughout.

Five minutes later, Díaz had scored, drifting in to move a cross under Rulli. Five minutes after that, Sadio Mané had put Liverpool ahead on the night, latching on to a pass from Alexander-Arnold, darting past Rulli as he charged out of his goal and into midfield, after which calmly rolling the ball into the online.

Perhaps, in hindsight, it might have been easier had Villarreal not heard that siren call of possibility. Perhaps it might have been easier to go quietly, to succumb to the inevitable. That may need hurt less. But then the journey isn’t defined by the destination.

Villarreal beat Juventus in Turin within the round of 16. It silenced Bayern Munich within the quarterfinals. And it produced 45 minutes that saw Liverpool — a team now on its strategy to a 3rd Champions League final in five years, a team pursuing an unprecedented and scarcely possible clean sweep of trophies — so scrambled that when Klopp asked his assistant, Peter Krawietz, to discover a “single instance” of fine play from the primary half and show it to the players for inspiration, he got here back and told him there was nothing to be found.

And it did all of it on a budget that could be a fraction of its rivals, in an ecosystem by which the massive beasts devour a lot of the oxygen, and with a team patched together from the discarded and the dismissed. There was a standard root to the pride and the pain: At times, an aching wound can feel like a badge of honor.

“Soccer is gorgeous,” Villarreal’s captain, Raúl Albiol, said. In time, he knows, what is going to matter isn’t that Villarreal fell 45 minutes in need of a Champions League final, but that it got here to be ready to fall 45 minutes in need of a Champions League final.

“This was a defeat,” he said, “but we’ll all the time remember this run.”

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