The semifinals of the UEFA Champions League (UCL) 2021-22 saw four exciting battles as Liverpool and Real Madrid made it to the finals in a repeat fixture of the 2017-18 UCL final.
Liverpool beat Villarreal 5-2 on aggregate, while Real Madrid made it to the final with a 6-5 aggregate win over Manchester City.
Real improved on its record of most UCL final appearances to 17, while Liverpool became one of the only four clubs (Real Madrid - 17, AC Milan - 11, Bayern Munich - 11, Liverpool - 10) to ever play 10 or more UCL finals.
Karim Benzema was the player who stood out in this round, scoring three goals, with the last deciding the tie against City in the second leg.
He became the joint-highest goalscorer (10 goals) in the knockouts of a UEFA Champions League season, level with Cristiano Ronaldo, who had the same number of goals in 2016-17.
Liverpool cruises into finals, after stutter in the second leg
Jurgen Klopp’s side hosted Villarreal in a repeat fixture of the Europa League 2016 semifinal. Villarreal’s manager this time was Unai Emery, who had defeated Klopp’s Liverpool in the same Europa final that year.
At Anfield this time around, the German manager had his revenge, with his side scoring two goals in a space of 133 seconds in the second half.
Jordan Henderson’s cross from the right took a small deflection of Pervis Estupian to fly over goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli to open the scoring while Sadio Mane doubled the lead in the 55th minute.
In the return fixture, Villarreal struck early — not once, but twice.
Etienne Capoue was the assist provider for both goals, with the first one scored by Boulaye Dia, while former Arsenal man Francis Coquelin finishing the second.
Liverpool came back strong in the second half, with Fabinho scoring first, Luis Diaz the next and Mane putting the match to bed with the third, making him the highest African goalscorer in the Champions League knockouts (15 goals).
With the win, Liverpool became the first-ever English club to reach the final of the European Cup/Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup in the same season.
With 139 goals so far this season, it also set a club record for most goals scored in all competitions in a single season, surpassing its total of 138 in 1985/86.
Real robs Man City of its dream of consecutive UCL finals
Pep Guardiola had lost out on his maiden UCL title with City last year with a loss to Chelsea. This time, when it faced 13-time UCL Champion Real Madrid in the semis, it unleashed a tsunami of attacks from the kick-off.
Within 93 seconds, City had the lead. Riyad Mahrez’s left-footed cross was met by a diving header from Kevin De Bruyne as City scored its quickest goal in Champions League history.
Gabriel Jesus converted De Bruyne’s cross for City’s second, but Karim Benzema pulled one back after the half-hour mark from a Ferland Mendy cross to keep it 2-1 at half-time. In the second half, Fernandinho became the hero and the villain within minutes after coming on as a substitute. His cross was headed in by Phil Foden for City’s third, but a defensive error by the Brazilian cost City as a solo goal from Vinicius Jr. reduced the goal margin again.
While Bernardo Silva tried to widen the lead, a panenka penalty by Benzema cancelled that out. The match became the joint highest-scoring UCL semifinal, with Ajax 5-2 Bayern Munich (April 1995) and Liverpool 5-2 Roma (April 2018).
In the second leg, it was City which drew first blood again. Riyad Mahrez shot a left-footed curler off a Bernardo Silva shot in the 73rd minute to make it 5-3 in favour of City as Pep’s side could sense a foot in the final.
The match, however, was not done yet.
Rodrygo, who had replaced Toni Kroos, nicked in a Benzema cross from the left in the 90th minute and doubled his tally a minute later.
Real was level (5-5 on aggregate).
As the match trudged into extra-time, Real Madrid earned a penalty following a mistimed challenge by Ruben Dias on Benzema. The Frenchman scored leaving the goalkeeper, Ederson on the other side and Los Blancos were through to the finals.
Carlo Ancelotti became the manager with most UCL final appearances (5), with the latest to be played in Paris this month.
Expectations from the UCL final in Paris
Liverpool and Real Madrid have been perpetual rivals in the Champions League, the two sides have played two UCL finals before — 1981 and 2018.
In 1981, it was the Reds who got the better of Real, while Gareth Bale’s brace guided Real to settle the scores in Kyiv four years back.
While their latest meeting was in the UCL quarterfinals last year, the loss of 2018 will be stinging Liverpool the most, as a major section of that squad will be heading to Paris this time, including manager Jurgen Klopp and winger Mohamed Salah, who was injured and replaced mid-game in that match.
It will be Real Madrid’s first UCL final since 2018 as it fights for its 14th title, while Liverpool will eye its seventh, playing its third UCL final in five years.