Liverpool will have to overturn a first leg deficit if they hope to progress to the final of this year’s Europa League, after Adrian Lopez’s late goal put Villarreal in the driving seat ahead of next week’s return leg at Anfield.
Jurgen Klopp’s side created the first real chance of the evening five minutes in, but Joe Allen was unable to beat Spanish goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo with a side-footed effort from just inside the box, after a good low cross from Adam Lallana.
The hosts responded with a good chance of their own on 11 minutes; Roberto Soldado’s half-volley from the right of the box going just wide of the left upright after a quick free-kick from captain Bruno.
Lucas Leiva, who hasn’t scored a club goal in over six years, was then unable to give the away side an early advantage as he failed to control his volley from 25 yards four minutes later.
The best chance of the half fell to Marcelino’s men after good work from Cedric Bakambu and Jonathan dos Santos in the Liverpool box, but Tomas Pina’s side-footed effort was clawed away by Simon Mignolet.
The Reds’ next half-chance arrived five minutes before the interval, but Philippe Coutinho lashed his shot wastefully high over the bar from 20 yards after a good lay-off from Lallana.
Soldado then spurned his second chance of the evening in the 43rd minute, but he was unable to finish past Mignolet from 20 yards after a neat reverse pass from Bruno.
Bakambu was very unlucky not to give his side the lead just after the break, as Dos Santos’ corner was well met by the Congolese striker, but it stuck the outside of the post to keep the tie goalless.
The hosts continued to apply the pressure early in the second half. Right-back Mario Gaspar, well known for scoring a wonderful overhead kick against England for Spain in last year’s friendly, shot high over the bar after being played in behind by Soldado.
Liverpool’s first chance of the second period came through Roberto Firmino, who had previously been kept quiet by the Villarreal centre halves. His powerful low strike from the right of the area was wonderfully deflected onto the post by Asenjo.
Bakambu squandered another chance to give the Yellow Submarine the lead in the 87th minute, but credit must go to Mignolet who produced a superb right-handed save to deny him.
Alberto Moreno had the chance two minutes later to snatch a crucial away goal, but his fabulous driving run into the box was not met with an equally good finish, as he shot high over the bar.
The pivotal moment came with almost the last action of the game. Spanish winger Denis Suarez had threatened to cause problems all night, and his well timed run to beat the offside trap allowed him to play a fantastic square pass to Lopez, on for Soldado, who made no mistake, tapping into an empty net.
This loss was Liverpool’s first in the competition this season, but Klopp will hope that his side can conjure the spirit of their last home tie against Borussia Dortmund and overturn the deficit in a week’s time.
In the other semi-final tie, Sevilla scored two possibly crucial away goals in their draw with Ukrainian side, Shakhtar Donetsk.
Vitolo gave the Spanish side an early advantage with his left-footed strike in the sixth minute.
However, the home side responded just under 20 minutes later, with attacking midfielder Marlos’ shot beating goalkeeper Soria Solis.
Taras Stepanenko’s header from Marlos’ corner in the 36th minute then gave the Ukrainians the lead, but with less than ten minutes to play, Vitolo was fouled in the box and Kevin Gameiro converted the spot-kick, giving Unai Emery’s team the upper hand ahead of the return tie.