Mane measures up to Benzema and De Bruyne: Four hot topics from Liverpool vs. Villarreal

Liverpool showed patience and poise in breaking down Villarreal to take a giant step towards their third Champions League final in five seasons.

Jurgen Klopp’s men endured a goalless first half against Unai Emery’s well-drilled outfit but a Pervis Estupinan own-goal and a tidy finish from the in-form Sadio Mane secured a 2-0 win early in the second half.

Some familiar faces impressed, while Klopp had the luxury of looking at the bigger picture as the Reds’ bid for a historic quadruple remained on track.

After yet another Anfield victory, we look at some of the standout moments and talking points.

Liverpool’s Mane for the big occasion

During Tuesday’s thrilling semi-final between Manchester City and Real Madrid, Kevin De Bruyne and Karim Benzema turned in the sort of performances that define elite big-game players. Sadio Mane unquestionably deserves to be considered in that company.

The Senegalese forward latched on to a pass from his old ally Mohamed Salah to dispatch a fine second goal for Liverpool. That was Mane’s sixth in his past seven matches – a run that has taken in three goals in two outings against City, and strikes versus Benfica and Manchester United.

Luis Diaz’s livewire presence on the left wing is allowing Mane to excel in a central striking role and bringing his eye for goal to the fore. There are few, if any, more important players to Klopp’s bid for sporting immortality.

Rulli’s unruliness catches up with Villarreal

Playing behind a side exuding defensive discipline, composure and general tidiness, Geronimo Rulli cut an incongruous figure in the Villarreal goal. If Emery’s no-frills side look like the well-mannered cousins of La Liga counterparts Atletico Madrid in this competition, the goalkeeping department is a point of difference.

Jan Oblak might have dipped a little from his imperious levels this season, but he has generally been immaculate when it comes to the basics of his profession. Rulli is a rogue element by comparison. Unusual decisions to punch and other erratic flourishes were dotted through his first-half work. 

Jordan Henderson’s cross taking a decisive deflection off Estupinan didn’t help on Liverpool’s opener, but Rulli’s unconvincing flap felt about right. He then almost misjudged a Virgil van Dijk long-ranger entirely – again failing to encourage the required assurance in those around him.

Klopp rewarded for Alexander-Arnold switch

Trent Alexander-Arnold has more strings to his creative bow than most but Liverpool’s attacking right-back was as frustrated as any of his teammates during the first half.

The England international filling an advanced, right-sided central midfield position early in the second period proved crucial to breaking Villarreal down. From here, he dinked a cute pass towards Diaz that almost let the Colombian star in to open the scoring.

Alexander-Arnold being stationed centrally allowed Henderson to stretch the play outside him and put in the cross for Liverpool’s breakthrough goal from the right wing. Another nicely-weighted pass from the 23-year-old then featured in the build-up to Mane’s goal.

A more signature delivery – a delicious, booming, swinging cross – saw fellow full-back Andy Robertson convert from an offside position later on, but it is the variety of Alexander-Arnold’s threat that sets him apart right now.

MORE: The best stats and facts behind Man City 4-3 Real Madrid

Liverpool get title race edge over Man City?

We can scrabble around for half-clues and hints over where the balance of power lies in the battle for the Premier League title and make ourselves look silly. The smart money remains on two formidable teams winning every game they have left to play this season.

However, in terms of their midweek exertions, City’s efforts against Real Madrid were certainly more taxing. Pep Guardiola’s men put in more of a statement display – Liverpool 2-0 Villarreal won’t be featuring in many compilations of best ever Champions League games over the coming years – but Liverpool appeared to be enjoying a public training exercise at times after the interval at Anfield.

Henderson, Mane, Alexander-Arnold and Diaz were all able to be withdrawn to standing ovations. Liverpool’s forthcoming trip to Newcastle United and the following weekend’s meeting with Tottenham Hotspur represent potentially their toughest remaining league fixtures. Leaving something in the tank when facing Villarreal could prove crucial.

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