CNN – Expect the unexpected. So it goes for Liverpool on those “special nights” that have punctuated the history of this storied English soccer club.
And so it proved. A first European final in nine years awaits, after a 3-0 win over Spanish team Villarreal sealed a spot in the Europa League final.
If nerves jangled, they never jangled quite as much as they had last month when Liverpool qualified for the semifinals after a remarkable 4-3 victory and 5-4 aggregate win over manager Jurgen Klopp’s former club Borussia Dortmund.
Daniel Sturridge was the star Thursday, with the England striker having a hand in all three goals in a win which sealed a 3-1 aggregate success and a meeting with Europa League holders Sevilla in the final.
Injured for much of it, he has struggled to earn a regular starting place in Klopp’s starting XI, but his performance was a pertinent reminder to the Liverpool manager of the qualities the former Manchester City and Chelsea striker offers.
It wasn’t just Liverpool’s fiesty display that stirred their fans at Anfield.
This was the club’s first home fixture since an independent inquiry ruled 96 of its fans had been unlawfully killed in the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989.
Liverpool, 1-0 behind following last week’s first-leg match in Spain, were on the front foot from the first whistle and roared on by their vociferous supporters that early pressure told when Villarreal defender Bruno Soriano turned the ball into his own net.
Despite a strong start, Liverpool was forced to wait for the telling goal as chances came and went.
It finally arrived in the second half when Sturridge, whose shot hit the underside of the goalkeeper before crossing the line after hitting the inside of the post, gave Liverpool a two-goal lead and put them ahead on aggregate for the first time in the tie.
Villarreal capitulated, with Victor Ruiz dismissed after being shown a second yellow.
Liverpool made sure of its place in the final when playmaker Adam Lallana converted from close range in the dying minutes after some clever work on the wing by the impressive Roberto Firmino.
Sevilla, who got the better of Ukrainian team Shakhtar Donetsk 5-3 on agreggate, and Liverpool will now meet in Basel on May 18 with both teams aiming to win and seal a place in next season’s Champions League competition.
And Klopp warned the residents of Basel to expect an influx of thousands of Liverpool fans.
“We take 50,000, 60,000 not in the stadium — maybe 100,000 — it is a nice city by the way, close to my home.”
Reflecting on his side’s victory, Klopp cited emotion and intelligence as key to Liverpool’s success in reaching the final.
“A wonderful night, a brilliant game from my side,” he said. “What a performance.
“The first half an hour was a big emotion. It was great. The last 15 minutes of the first half we lost patience.
“The second half plan was to keep going with the emotional football but using the brain a bit more and in the end brilliant.”