Liverpool survived a first-half scare to reach the Champions League final with a 3-2 win at Villarreal, for a 5-2 aggregate victory, after the night had threatened to turn sour for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
The visitors trailed 2-0 on Tuesday night with an insipid first-half performance before fighting back with three goals after the break to advance to their third European Cup final in five seasons.
The Premier League side had won the first leg 2-0 in England but looked in danger of coming unstuck on a rain-soaked pitch in Spain, as the hosts pegged them back with goals from Boulaye Dia and Francis Coquelin.
Liverpool, however, came out transformed after halftime and goals from Fabinho, Luis Diaz and Sadio Mane in 12 minutes sealed the deal, with Villarreal ending the match with 10 men following a late red card for Etienne Capoue.
Roared on by their faithful fanbase who were packed into the stadium, Villarreal opened the scoring after three minutes with a close-range strike from Dia that was greeted by a chant of “Yes we can!” from the home supporters.
Villarreal had been lifeless in the first leg at Anfield but looked a completely different team as they tore into Liverpool with the same aggressive game that had knocked out Juventus in the last 16 and beaten Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals.
Villarreal levelled the tie with a close-range header from Coquelin and looked on the verge of a miracle comeback.
Yet Klopp brought Diaz off the bench at the break and the in-form Colombian winger changed the dynamic of the game, finding space and taking advantage of a Villarreal side that seemed to have run out of gas.
As the Liverpool pressure mounted, it felt like only a matter of time until they scored and the goal eventually came following a brilliant combination between Fabinho and Mohamed Salah on the right side.
Salah teed him up with a pass between three defenders that left him alone to score with a low, angled shot that went between the legs of Villarreal keeper Geronimo Rulli, who endured a difficult game.
Liverpool smelled blood and went for the jugular, led by Diaz who ghosted into the middle of the box to head Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross easily past the goalkeeper in the 67th minute.
Seven minutes later Rulli tried to clear a long pass to Mane outside the area and completely missed the ball, leaving the Senegalese forward all alone to finish into the empty net.
Capoue, who had enjoyed a great first half with two assists, was dismissed with five minutes remaining, receiving a second yellow card for a late challenge on Curtis Jones.
Liverpool’s centre-back Virgil van Dijk hailed his team’s performance.
“The early goal didn’t help us, it helped them massively, so we had to dig deep, we had to be very mature. And obviously, second half, we played outstanding,” van Dijk said, adding that Klopp had given them clear instructions at halftime.
“(We needed to) play football, play the Liverpool way, as we have been playing basically all season. Get on the ball, have a lot of movement on the ball but also behind the last line, they play a high line, so with the speed we have, we have to mix that up as well,” he said.
For Salah, he hopes that his team will face Real Madrid in the final, as he eyes revenge for his team’s 2018 defeat by the Spanish side.
The Egyptian forward had left the field in tears following a heavy fall under a challenge by Sergio Ramos in Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat by Real in the final four years ago.
“I want to play Madrid,” Salah told BT Sport. “City is a really tough team, we’ve played against them a few times this season. If you ask me personally, I’d prefer Madrid.”