Over the past decade, Liverpool have slid from Europe’s elite into the second tier. But with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Villarreal in the second leg of their Europa League semifinals match-up, they’re just one victory away from next season’s Champions League. It’s only fitting, then, that they’re riding the increasing relevance of Europe’s second-tier competition right back into the continent’s elite.
In the first leg at El Madrigal, Jurgen Klopp fielded an extremely defensive squad. For 91 minutes it looked like this decision would pay off, as the two sides played out a languid 0-0 draw. But in the 92nd minute a beautiful counterattack led to a goal from substitute Adrián, and Villarreal won 1-0. Afterwards, Klopp was heavily criticized for his squad selection, most notably for leaving Daniel Sturridge out.
For the return leg, he went in a very different direction. Emre Can—Klopp’s engine, his workhouse, his security blanket—made a surprise return three weeks after rupturing ankle ligaments and being declared out for the season. Sturridge featured in the starting 11, along with Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, and Adam Lallana—about as attacking as Liverpool gets. It would be left to just Can and James Milner to cover the defense.
As it turns out, they didn’t have to do much. Villarreal was comically toothless, taking just six shots, two on goal, and none from particularly dangerous positions. Simon Mignolet was only really tested once—on a deflected shot. Dejan Lovren took as many quality shots as the entire Villarreal team.
On the attack, Liverpool was absolutely punishing. They forced an own goal early, in the seventh minute, after the second of two low, driven, dangerous crosses deflected off Bruno into his own net. Lallana should’ve turned a penetrating ball from Milner into the net later in the half, and the Liverpool front four displayed a fluidity that left Villarreal grasping at straws and grasping onto Liverpool players, picking up two yellow cards.
The second half was more of the same, and in the 61st minute Sturridge barely stayed onside to put away a quality Firmino through-ball. Though Liverpool was winning the tie 2-1, just one goal from Villarreal would see them advance on the away goals rule. But they never, ever looked like they had it in them, and 10 minutes later Victor Ruiz picked up a second yellow for stamping on Lallana’s foot, killing all hope. In the 81st minute Firmino danced around the outside back, and his cross was ultimately tapped home by Lallana to provide the final scoreline, 3-0.
Liverpool has had a remarkable run to the finals. In the Round of 16 they comprehensively defeated bitter rivals Manchester United, exorcising some demons. In the quarterfinals they scored three goals in the final 25 minutes of the second leg to defeat Klopp’s old team, Borussia Dortmund, who they had no business defeating. And in the semifinals they overturned a first leg loss, and became the first non-Spanish team to knock a Spanish team out of continental competition this season.
Liverpool’s task hasn’t yet been completed, of course. On May 18 in Basel, Switzerland, they’ll face Sevilla. Los Rojiblancos are having a bit of a down year—they’re only in 7th place in La Liga (though Liverpool is in 8th place in England). But they defeated Molde, Basel, Athletic Bilbao, and Shakhtar Donetsk to make the finals, and more importantly, have won each of the past two Europa League championships. They are a very worthy opponent.
Though Liverpool’s Premier League position doesn’t show it—and has been depressed by key injuries and a focus on the Europa League—they have massively improved under Klopp. They have already made two important signings for next season, and are reportedly in the hunt for world class players like Mario Götze. Next year they will put in a serious challenge for the top four, a challenge built on the back of a winning system and a sustainable base of players, unlike the Luis Suarez-powered second place finish a few years ago.
But a victory over Sevilla in two weeks time has the potential to accelerate that path by a year, and seriously vault Liverpool back into competition with Europe’s elite. In a so far successful bid to incentivize teams to take the Europa League more seriously, two years ago UEFA upped the prize money and set aside a berth in the Champions League for the winner. Liverpool will claim at least $15 million in total prize money even if they lose, but what they want most is that all important Champions League spot.
The Champions League spot guarantees at least another $13.7 million, and boosted by the ridiculous amount of money they get from the new Premier League TV deal, the allure of Champions League soccer should help attract and pay for the one or two near-world class players Liverpool needs to consistently compete with Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal—and apparently Tottenham and Leicester City.
This young and talented team was just a couple of pieces away from doing something serious now that they are led by one of the best managers in the world. Thanks to the improvements and developments they’ve already made in just half a season, the promised land might be closer than anybody imagined.