VILLARREAL, Spain – In the corner of the Estadio de la Céramica, left completely at the mercy of the elements, fans began to raise their scarves. On the scoreboard in their backs, the clock has passed for more than 90 minutes. On the pitch in front of them, Villarreal were in wasted time in the Champions League.
Then they started singing. While Liverpool enjoyed a rare moment of calm after an evening storm, and finalized their 3-2 win, the rest of the field noticed what was happening in the corner, and grabbed the tune. They carried the veil aloft as well, in a sign of defiance, loyalty, and gratitude.
And then, when the siren went off and it was all over, when the sad Villarreal players walked around the pitch, heads bowed and eyes blazing, the tempo quickened. The scarves began to twist and turn, and the mood shifted from regretting what had been stolen away to celebrating all that was left. in pain They found pride.
In fact, the amount of damage was probably the best measure of how close Villarreal could get to Unai Emery. This team wasn’t supposed to be in the Champions League semi-finals, not really; The structure of the elite competition in European football is built to make it highly unlikely that a team of its stature will be able to travel so deep into this tournament.
Of course, Villarreal wasn’t supposed to have the chance to go to the second leg. He was, by common unanimity, sent swiftly to Anfield last week, and his limits are shown by the depth of Liverpool’s resources, the scope of his firepower and the sheer charisma of Jurgen Klopp’s squad. The return leg was, more than anything else, an administrative hurdle to be cleared, and a form to be completed.
Villarreal, the city, is an intriguing place to set up a game of this magnitude: a satellite close to Castéllon is, more than anything else, quiet and refined, and, after a day spent in torrential rain, is almost completely deserted. Excerpts of songs in English and Spanish echoed through the streets.
If the sense of occasion that usually accompanies the most seismic games on the European calendar was missing on the outside, it was evident on the inside. For the first time, Villarreal arranged a mosaic: a blue submarine on a yellow background, the club’s emblem, Endavant, was selected in huge letters. The public speaking announcer spoke of faith in return.
Any doubters would have been converted in three minutes, as Boulay Dia netted from a completely unintended Etienne Capoue cross and Ceramica looked to be melting. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. Liverpool, who were so smooth and fluid in their 2-0 win six days ago, struggled to complete a pass.
By the first half, her rhythm was shattered and her confidence was exhausted, and then, just when she thought she might succeed, her advantage completely vanished. Capoe crossed on purpose this time. Francis Coquelin headed home. Villarreal’s seat on the pitch was emptied and the coaches, substitutes and various assistants, all barely able to believe what they were seeing.
At that moment, they tied 2-2 in the middle of the second leg, Villarreal players stood within close range. The final was there, there, and they could grab a spot inside of it. Villarreal will be the smallest town, some distance away, to send a team to the biggest game in football.
In an era defined and designed by Goliath, it will be this team, built on equal footing, that has done what Ajax And Monaco And RB Leipzig Can’t make it all the way. And they can do so by drawing their own entry in the ever-widening Champions League book of a stunning comeback, a miracle she calls a miracle, just like Barcelona (2017), Roma (2018), Liverpool (2019) and Real Madrid. (Here and there).
Hope and faith are at different points on the same axis. Villarreal, in 45 minutes, travel all the way.
And then, when it was there, within their reach, it was taken away. Klopp acquired a striker worth $45 million, Diogo Jota, and introduced another, Luis Diaz. The key has irreversibly changed momentum. Trent Alexander-Arnold hit the crossbar. Diaz attempted an amazing overhead kick. Then Mohamed Salah passed Fabinho with his shot through Jeronimo Rulli’s legs. In that moment, it was all over.
Five minutes later, Diaz had scored, drifting into the net to make a cross under Rulli. Five minutes later, Sadio Mane had put Liverpool ahead of the night, pulling in a pass from Alexander-Arnold, pasting Rowley to shove his own net into the middle of the field, and then coolly slotted the ball into the net.
Perhaps, in hindsight, it would have been easier if Villarreal had not heard that siren. Perhaps it would have been easier to go quietly and give in to the inevitable. It may be less painful. But the journey is not determined by the destination.
Villarreal beat Juventus in Turin in the round of 16. Villarreal silenced Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals. And it produced 45 minutes that saw Liverpool – a team now on their way to their third Champions League final in five years, a team chasing an unprecedented and barely possible clean sweep for titles – so stepped up that when Klopp asked his assistant, Peter Krauetz, to identify “one case” To play well from the first half and to show it to the players for inspiration, he came back and told him that there was nothing to be found.
And it did it all on a budget that’s a fraction of its competitors, in an ecosystem where big beasts consume the most oxygen, and with a patchwork team of neglected and expelled. Pride and pain had a common root: at times, a painful wound could feel like a badge of honour.
“Football is beautiful,” said Villarreal captain Raul Albiol. In time, he knows, what matters is not that Villarreal are 45 minutes behind in the Champions League final, but rather that they are short of 45 minutes from the Champions League final.
“This was a defeat,” he said, “but we will always remember that run.”
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