Europa League: Liverpool sink Villarreal to set up Sevilla final
Five times European champions Liverpool reached a 12th continental final thanks to an own goal from Bruno Soriano and further strikes from Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana to overturn a first-leg deficit and go through 3-1 on aggregate.
Villarreal were largely anonymous throughout and seemed to wilt in the face of a raucous atmosphere and early onslaught by the hosts, while their demise was hastened by a sending off for Victor Ruiz for a second booking after 71 minutes.
It was a superb evening for Sturridge, whose place in the starting lineup had been in doubt after he was left out of key recent fixtures, but he was instrumental in a one-sided victory that prevented Spanish dominance of Europe’s two major finals.
With Real Madrid and city rivals Atletico set to contest the Champions League showpiece, Sevilla ensured there would also be a Spanish team in the continent’s second-tier competition, while staying on course for a record third straight title.
They had Kevin Gameiro to thank for a comfortable 5-3 aggregate win over Ukrainian outfit Shakhtar with the France striker scoring twice and Mariano Ferreira grabbing a third to book Sevilla’s spot in the final in Basel on May 18.
Villarreal might have fancied their chances of reaching their first major European final, having snatched an advantage in the first leg that ensured an away goal would leave Liverpool needing to score three times.
The fact that the hosts managed that total without Villarreal finding the net was no mean feat.
The Spanish side were on a club record 12-match unbeaten run in Europe and boasted a watertight defence that had not conceded a goal in 280 minutes in all competitions, before the damn was burst just seven minutes into the encounter at Anfield.
Liverpool, backed by a ferocious home crowd, broke the deadlock with an own goal from Soriano, who turned in Roberto Firmino’s cross from the left with Sturridge lurking.
It was largely one-way traffic as Liverpool, who had beaten heavyweights Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund in their last two Europa League encounters at Anfield, laid siege to the Villarreal goal throughout the first half.
It took until the 63rd minute, however, for the hosts to add to their lead as Sturridge justified his selection with a sharp finish when he turned in Firmino’s effort from close range.
The England striker has been on the bench in a number of key games this season, having seemingly failed to convince manager Juergen Klopp of his suitability, but gave the German a taste of his immense talent with a superb display.
Villarreal still needed one goal to gain the advantage, but their hopes were hit when Ruiz saw red for a second booking after stamping on the foot of Lallana who then turned the ball in from Sturridge’s mis-hit shot with eight minutes to play.
“Wonderful night, brilliant game from my side,” said Klopp, who has now guided Liverpool to two finals in his short time at the club, after they lost to Manchester City in this season’s League Cup final at Wembley.
Standing between the German and some silverware will be Sevilla, masters of the Europa League in recent years.
The difference between Sevilla’s domestic and European form has been stark this season with the Spaniards on a dire run in La Liga, with one win in seven, but tightening their grip on the Europa League as they hunt down a record third straight title.
Gameiro had converted a late penalty as Sevilla and Shakhtar drew the first leg 2-2 and he was on target again to open the scoring after nine minutes on Thursday, capitalising on a miscontrol from Maksym Malyshev to finish in style.
Shakhtar were level on the night a minute before halftime, however, when a fine pass from Marlos was finished by Eduardo.
Gameiro then netted his sixth goal in his last five Europa League matches two minutes after the break when he was played in by Grzegorz Krychowiak, and Ferreira rounded off the scoring with a stunning strike from distance just before the hour.