“Yes, we can!” chanted the Villarreal fans and in the end, the very, very end, they could. This may not have had the drama of the last round but it did have drama and in the last minute. Finally, on 92 minutes, someone found a way through when Denis Suárez entered the penalty area on the right and rolled the ball across for Adrián López to score. Liverpool’s unbeaten record in this competition ends at 12; Villarreal’s extends to 12. And so to Anfield, where the task will be far from easy.
Twice the ball had hit the post, one for each team, but as the second half progressed and the end drew nearer, it appeared that neither side would find a way through in a game that intrigued and often impressed but only occasionally excited until the final minutes. If Anfield in the last round was out of control, the Madrigal was marked by the control that appeared to be a priority for both teams. The problem with control is that it is never complete; it is never over. And so it proved.
Liverpool know that better than anyone and this time it happened to them. They were on the verge of a useful draw; that they did not get it naturally raises questions. For some players it raises significant ones. At the end of what was ultimately a disappointing night, personally and collectively, Daniel Sturridge stood with friends beneath the concrete stand at the end where the winner had been scored. He had seen the goal go in from the bench. Not only did he not start; he did not get on.
A game that was marked by absentees for Liverpool had looked like ending in a 0-0 draw that seemed to suit both teams; the 1-0 suits only the Spanish, although here was another example that it is never over until it is actually over.
Divock Origi, who scored in both legs against Dortmund, was out with the ankle ligament injury provoked by that stamp in the Merseyside derby; Emre Can too has ankle ligament problems, while Jordan Henderson suffered injured knee ligaments in the first leg of the last round. Danny Ings remains unavailable, still unseen by Jürgen Klopp. Christian Benteke was back on the bench and was introduced in the second half. “We could talk about Emre Can, Divock Origi or Hendo if you want, but they’re not here,” Klopp said.
Nor was Mamadou Sakho, and his was a bigger, more troubling absence after he tested positive for a banned substance following the second leg of the last 16 match against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Reports in France pointed at him having taken a banned fat-reducing substance and he chose not to request that his B sample be analysed before Tuesday’s deadline. Having already been left out against Newcastle, in agreement with the club, he did not travel to Spain. The central defender now faces a 30 day suspension while Uefa conducts its investigation.
A lengthy ban may follow but the initial 30-day one takes Liverpool to the end of the season. Martin Skrtel, another struggling with injuries, was on the bench and so it was Kolo Touré who replaced Sakho and impressively so. Afterwards Touré was rightly pleased with his performance. Ever the optimist, he was also convinced that there is a way back into this tie for Liverpool.
For Sturridge, there should be too – next week, at least. Beyond that seems less clear; his role in this team remains ill-defined. It is limited, too, away from Anfield. Even without Ings, Origi and Benteke, Klopp did not start him here. When it came time to make a change, late, he chose Benteke.
Sturridge started on the bench for the third European game in a row and remained there too. His absence was more striking still for the injuries, his part in the 4-3 in the last round and his side’s lack of goals in this round. Villarreal’s Cédric Bakambu is this tournament’s second top scorer on nine. No Liverpool striker has more than two, although perhaps that concerns them rather less when they are a club who can go behind to Dortmund after 246 seconds and, four goals later, go ahead after 5,450.
Liverpool have six strikers in the squad; it was the least strikerly of the six who started, Roberto Firmino. Klopp called it a “difficult decision”, insisting he had thought “a lot” before opting for stability and flexibility, but it is legitimate to wonder if he is not entirely convinced by Sturridge. Perhaps he does not see in him the intensity he seeks. When Sturridge scored against Newcastle, his manager praised the work not the goal. There was a message there. There may have been a message here too. Next week Sturridge has the chance to deliver one of his own.
Without an out-and-out striker Liverpool’s best chance fell to Joe Allen early on, arriving on the penalty spot, only for him to shoot straight at Sergio Asenjo. Relatively little followed. Firmino’s presence was a flitting one but he did hit the post in the second half. That seemed to suit everyone until a game that was slipping into stalemate entered the final minutes.
Bakambu was suddenly through but he could not finish, the shot saved by Simon Mignolet. Then Alberto Moreno was dashing up the field, all alone, but nor could he finish, striking wide. Adrián could. The game ended with fans launching into another chant, leaping up and down to: “Let the Madrigal jump!” The Yellow Submarine followed and then more chants of “Yes, we can”. They had been right after all.