LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Liverpool looks like being one European giant too many for Villarreal.
A third Champions League final in five years is in sight for the English club after a 2-0 win in the first leg of the semifinals on Wednesday, secured after an own-goal by Pervis Estupinan and a poked finish by Sadio Mane in a two-minute span early in the second half.
Villarreal’s fairytale run in the competition might be coming to an end. A team sitting in seventh place in the Spanish league and filled with players who failed to make it in England somehow managed to eliminate European royalty in Juventus and Bayern Munich in the knockout stage.
Liverpool, still on course for an unprecedented quadruple of major trophies, was an even bigger step up and easily overcame the limited challenge of Villarreal.
Still, it took the six-time European champions some time to make the breakthrough.
The goals came in a span of 133 seconds from the 53rd, when Jordan Henderson’s cross from the right deflected off the outstretched boot of Estupinan and looped over goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, who flapped at the ball and could only turn it into the net.
The power of Anfield on European nights tends to turn one goal quickly into two, and that’s what transpired again.
Trent Alexander-Arnold fed a pass inside to Mohamed Salah and his slide-rule ball in behind the defense was latched onto by Mane, who toe-poked past Rulli with a sliding finish.
The second leg takes place on Tuesday and only a major surprise will prevent Villarreal from bowing out at the semifinals stage, just like in 2006.
Liverpool is looking to win Europe's biggest prize for the second time in four years, having also reached the final in 2018 under manager Jurgen Klopp.
Manchester City takes a 4-3 lead over Real Madrid into the second leg of their semifinal in Spain next Wednesday.
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press