Europa League: Conservative approach led to Liverpool’s fall in first leg

Yellow Submarine were ruthless in punishing Reds after a defensive error allowed Adrian Lopez to nod home the winner

Taimoor Siddiqui May 01, 2016
Adrian’s goal in the first leg makes Villarreal the favourites to make the Europa League final in Basel, however, Klopp’s men have shown before that they do not roll over that easily. PHOTO: AFP

Liverpool go into the second leg of the Europa League faced with an uphill task of overturning a 1-0 deficit to Spanish side Villarreal.

The Yellow Submarine were ruthless in punishing the Reds in the first leg after a defensive error, literally the first of the day from the Reds, in stoppage-time allowed Adrian Lopez to nod home the winner and break Liverpool hearts.

The Reds had simply been phenomenal till that point.

Lucas Leiva, who was replacing the injured Emre Can, did brilliantly in stopping the supply to Villarreal forwards Roberto Soldado and Cedric Bakambu, while Joe Allen, in for injured captain Jordan Henderson, may have played the best game of his life.

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The little Welshman was everywhere on the pitch. His intelligent reading of the game and timely interceptions did not allow Marcelino’s men any time on the ball in the middle of the park and had he converted the golden opportunity he received in the first-half, his day would have been perfect.

The Reds were outstanding. They did their job. They put in the shift.

But all that went in vain when Adrian gave his side a potentially decisive goal which tilts the outcome of the semi-final in favour of the Castellon outfit.

So where did it all go for Liverpool?

Since manager Jurgen Klopp took the reins at Liverpool in October last year, he has rarely gotten off on the wrong foot when it comes to tactics and team selection.

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Despite many of his decisions having raised some eyebrows, he has always managed to make it work.

Well, except for this time. Against Villarreal, Klopp’s team selection was way off the mark.

Leaving Daniel Sturridge on the bench in the first half was understandable — having witnessed Liverpool give up a 2-0 lead against Newcastle, Klopp was expected to be a bit more defensive. But not putting him on when the unwell Philippe Coutinho was substituted at half-time spelt danger.

While Klopp would have expected Villarreal to attack from the word go, the Spanish side did the complete opposite. While this could be credited to Liverpool’s tireless midfield display, nonetheless, Villarreal’s attacks were, all too comfortably, dealt with by the Liverpool defence.

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Klopp should have turned to Sturridge to stretch Villarreal’s defence and go for the invaluable away goal to take to Anfield. The German, however, opted to stay conservative.

And while his strategy worked out to a certain extent — as the Reds were en route to take a 0-0 draw to Anfield, it proved to be completely irrelevant when Adrian scored the goal for the home side.

Had Klopp opted to attack Villarreal in the second half, the dynamics of the game would have been extremely different.

Even without Sturridge, Liverpool registered a total of 15 shots, compared to Villarreal’s nine, with three on target (same as Villarreal). The Reds even managed to get three saves out of Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo in contrast to the home side’s two.

But despite even enjoying the larger share of the possession (54.1%), Liverpool still find themselves one goal down for the return leg at Anfield and for the first time this season, it’s the charismatic German who must take the blame.

Despite the tie currently tilted in favour of the Spaniards, Liverpool have the advantage of playing the second leg at Anfield, the Reds’ twelfth man.

The atmosphere there proved to be the undoing of Dortmund in the quarter-final and the atmosphere would prove decisive against Villarreal as well.

Klopp’s men have their backs against the wall and while that may faze many, the German simply relishes such challenges. His teams perform best when they are the underdogs and while Adrian might be basking in the spotlight at the moment, he unknowingly has given Liverpool the wake-up call they needed.

A feisty encounter awaits at Anfield.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2016.

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