VILLARREAL, Spain – In the corner of the Estadio de la Céramica, which was completely deserted, fans began to unveil their scarves. On the scoreboard behind them, the clock was ticking for more than 90 minutes. On the pitch in front of them, Villarreal were on loan time in the Champions League.
That’s when they started singing. While Liverpool enjoyed a rare moment of calm after the evening storm, and put the final touch to their 3-2 victory, the rest of the stadium saw what was happening in the corner, and took the song. They raised their scarves high, too, a sign of stubbornness, and honesty, and gratitude.
And then, when the whistle blew and it was all over, as the Villareal players walked sadly around the stadium, their heads bowed and their eyes green, the tempo increased. Meetings began to falter and falter, with the situation changing from remorse for what had been plundered to celebrating the rest. In pain, they got proud.
Indeed, how much hurt it was, perhaps, the best measure of how close Villarreal of Unai Emery was. This team should not have been in the Champions League semi-finals, not really; The very structure of the European elite football tournament has been built to make it almost impossible for a team of its status to travel to the inside of the stadium.
Villarreal certainly shouldn’t have had a chance to go the second leg. It was, by mutual agreement, briefly sent to Anfield last week, that its shortcomings were revealed by the depth of Liverpool’s resources and the scope of its fire and the weight of Jürgen Klopp’s team. The rematch was, more than anything, an administrative obstacle to be cleared, a form of completion.
Villarreal, the city, is a great place to host a game of this magnitude: the nearby Castéllon satellite, more than anything, quiet and refined and, after a day spent under heavy rain, is almost completely abandoned. Song cartoons, in English and Spanish, were heard on the streets.
If the incident that usually accompanies most earthquake games in the European calendar did not occur outside, it was noticeable inside. For the first time, Villarreal had designed a mosaic: a blue submarine against a yellow background, a club motto, Endavant, chosen in capital letters. The announcer of the public talk spoke of believing in a return visit.
Any doubt they would be turned within three minutes, when Boulaye Dia hit the ball from Étienne Capoue’s cross, and Céramica seemed to melt. Suddenly, everything felt possible. Liverpool, unbeaten in a 2-0 win six days ago, struggled to complete the pass.
By the time he got to the break, his rhythm had broken and his self-esteem had plummeted and then, just when he thought he would succeed, his profits had completely disappeared. Capoue crossed, deliberately this time. Francis Coquelin headed home. The Villarreal bench entered the stadium, coaches and other reserve players and all other assistants could not believe what they were seeing.
At that moment, scoring 2-2 in the middle of the second leg, the Villarreal players stood within touch distance. The final was right there, and they could take a place in it. Villarreal would be the smallest city, at some distance, sending a team to the biggest football game.
In the era defined by Goliath, it would be this team, made of shoelaces, which did what Ajax and Monaco and RB Leipzig could not and did not do. And they could have done so by placing their own feature in the ever-expanding Champions League book of the eye, a miracle to call her, such as Barcelona (2017), Roma (2018), Liverpool (2019) and Real Madrid. (passim).
Hope and faith exist in different places on the same axis. Villarreal, in 45 minutes, had traveled all that way.
And then, when it was there, within their power, it was removed. Klopp took $ 45 million from the striker, Diogo Jota, and introduced another, Luis Díaz. The switch switched off without being switched off. Trent Alexander-Arnold hit a rock. Díaz tried to kick the top of the head. And then Mohamed Salah passed Fabinho and his shot passed at the feet of Géronimo Rulli. By then, it was all over.
Five minutes later, Díaz scored, heading for a cross under Rulli. Five minutes later, Sadio Mané had put Liverpool ahead that night, connecting with a pass from Alexander-Arnold, passing Rulli as he exited his goal and into the middle of the pitch, and then quietly bounced off the post.
Perhaps, in hindsight, it would have been easier if Villarreal had not heard such a call. It would probably be easier to go quietly, fail and avoid it. That may have hurt a little. But then the journey is not defined by the destination.
Villarreal beat Juventus in Turin in the round of 16. It silenced Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals. And it gave 45 minutes that Liverpool – the team that is now on the verge of reaching the third Champions League final in five years, the undefeated and easy-to-win title – were so excited that Klopp asked his assistant, Peter Krawietz, to identify “One example” of good play from the first half and showing the players inspiration, he came back and told him nothing could be found.
And it did it all on a budget that is part of its rivals, in an ecosystem where large animals use a lot of oxygen, and with a team tied together from dumping and dismissal. There was a common root of pride and pain: At times, a painful wound may feel like a badge of honor.
“Football is good,” Villarreal captain Raúl Albiol said. Over time, he knows, what will be even more important is not that Villarreal missed 45 minutes to reach the Champions League final, but could have been in the 45 minutes less than the Champions League final.
“This was a failure,” he said, “but we will always remember this race.”