It is one thing to be the red-hot favourites; another to make it count.
Liverpool took a significant stride towards their 10th European Cup final on a night when they refused to lose sight of their plan, what has got them to the point where an unprecedented quadruple is a possibility.
Villarreal came to frustrate. It is an approach that had worked in the previous rounds, helping them to stage stunning heists that got them past Juventus and Bayern Munich. With the scoreline blank at the interval, Unai Emery had to feel that he was a part of the way to further plunder.
Liverpool stayed cool. They continued to press on to the front foot, to manipulate the ball, only with more pace, more feeling. And they blew the doors off with two blasts in quick succession, the first when a Jordan Henderson cross deflected off the unfortunate Pervis Estupiñán to float into the far corner.
Villarreal were reeling and they were floored when Sadio Mané raced on to a Mohamed Salah ball to beat Gerónimo Rulli. The visitors did not threaten at any point and it is difficult to see how they will be able to turn things around in the second leg next Tuesday.
The banners had fluttered in the Kop before kick-off, reminding everybody why Liverpool are European royalty and highlighting how this was one of the great David versus Goliath stories at this stage of the competition.
Villarreal did not play top-flight football in Spain until 1998-99 and they have won only one major trophy – the Europa League last season. The population of their town is 50,000; in other words, less than the capacity of Anfield.
This Liverpool team carry a fear factor and their pre-match calling card featured one devastating statistic. Since 2 January, they had dropped only one result that mattered – in the 2-2 Premier League draw at Manchester City.
Villarreal were compact in their 4-4-2 system. They were always going to be. It was the game of their lives and full-blooded commitment was the minimum requirement from Unai Emery, who previously had only bad memories of this stadium. During his spell at Arsenal, he had been here three times and lost all three.
Liverpool wanted to bring their usual aggression, with and without the ball, and it was a little worrying for them when Rulli took his time over the first goal-kick of the tie. With two minutes on the clock. The Kop howled. Rulli would go through the same routine whenever he could while his teammates were pretty quick to go down and slow to get up. It was all about fracturing Liverpool’s rhythm.
Jürgen Klopp’s team had to show patience after the early goal did not materialise. It might have done. Mané had failed to control after Ibrahima Konaté headed down from a corner – the ball came to the forward quickly – but the big chance of the first quarter came when Salah collected a Mané pass up the right and looked up. Mané made his move, Salah’s cross was perfect but the header was all wrong.
Villarreal showed composure on the ball in the first half; they played out intelligently, which is no easy task in the face of the Liverpool press. They were caught at times but there was never any sense of panic as they ticked off the minutes to half-time.
Emery’s team barely crossed halfway before the break but it was about the blocks and the tackles, maintaining the shape. Liverpool did have other flickers. Salah curled off target, Mané spun and saw a shot deflect wide while Salah lifted a volley high. He had been picked out by Trent Alexander-Arnold’s sumptuous volleyed cut-back following an Andy Robertson diagonal. Thiago Alcântara also rattled the upright from 30 yards.
Villarreal are spiritually bound to Liverpool as a city. Their Yellow Submarine nickname derives from the colour of their shirts and the tune by Liverpool’s most famous band. The Beatles released it in 1966 and, in the 1967-68 season, a band of Villarreal fans started to play it at their club’s games on a battery-powered record player.
The Anfield crowd did not feel much of a connection but football is a game of styles and Liverpool had to overcome this one. They found a way in the second half.
Fabinho had seen a goal ruled out following a corner, Virgil van Dijk having headed to him from an offside position, and there was good luck about the breakthrough goal. Liverpool will argue that they drove it themselves after a left to right move saw Henderson swap passes with Alexander-Arnold and work the first real overlap of the night. His cross flicked off Estupiñán and sailed over Rulli.
Mané’s finish was lethal, unloaded quickly under pressure after Villarreal had allowed Salah to turn – their first real error – and, at the point, it felt over, Liverpool sensing blood and a killer third goal.
It did not come, despite the best efforts of Andy Robertson, Van Dijk and Luis Díaz. Two felt like enough.