Thus far unable to catch Pep Guardiola’s latest creation in the league, Liverpool took an almighty revenge on one he made earlier, and the history of this great club in European football may never be the same again.
They thought they had written the book on the matter of comebacks in the Champions League – concerning that story you may have heard from 14 years earlier in Istanbul, although this one, it has to be said, bears comparison. Three goals down to the Barcelona of late-era Lionel Messi, his genius declared in no uncertain terms in the first leg, and yet by 10pm the world’s greatest player was heading back down the tunnel defeated, a man with a wild look in his eye.
No team does this in the second leg of a Champions League semi-final without wondering if the hand of destiny is not ushering them down an alternative path to glory to the one they have chased all season. On Monday night, Manchester City edged the Premier League just a little further from Liverpool’s grasp which felt monumental – and then came Tuesday night when the response at Anfield was, quite frankly, stupendous.
How did this happen? Klopp reflected later, “I said to the boys before the game, ‘I don’t think it’s possible but because it’s you we have a chance”‘. But even that only went some way to explaining the impossible. How did they do it without Mohamed Salah, or Roberto Firmino or assorted others, plus Jordan Henderson on one leg for half the game, as well Andy Robertson carted off at half-time for an injury involving Luis Suarez? How did they do it against one of the best teams of this era or any other?
How did they do it with Divock Origi in attack? Ordinarily glad just to be a substitute on a night such as this, he was the two-goal match-winner. The best striker on the pitch on a night when he could not be sure that every opponent would know who he was without glancing at the back of his shirt. Robertson’s replacement, Georginio Wijnaldum, scored goals two and three in the second half and yet when the Scot went off at half-time it felt like just another blow that would make the task impossible.
Jamie Carragher, one of the men at the heart of the Liverpool comeback from three down against Milan in 2005, declared it Anfield’s greatest ever night and who are we to argue? Liverpool did it by assuming the role of the team in control even at three goals down and eventually even Barcelona fell thrall to that idea.
Klopp said that he had told his team to attack with everything at their disposal and defend with whatever came to hand. He asked them to be “cheeky” when they could and by a thousand audacious, confident acts they turned the tide in their favour.
They may not win the Premier League but in Madrid on June 1, they will contest the ninth European Cup final of their history, against Tottenham Hotspur or Ajax Amsterdam, their fourth of the Champions League era. The kings of the comeback are back again playing football on the edge and this time they will be favourites against whoever emerges triumphant in Amsterdam on Wednesday night.
Every club likes to think that when it matters they will turn their stadium into a decisive force, and there are many who put considerable store in the theory that no-one does it better than them. You spend the rest of your life arguing the relative merits, although you only had to be in Anfield on this night to know that the mood of the place, the certainty, that old whisky roar coupled with all the stuff that has gone before, can get into an opponent’s head – even a good one.
Hard to tell what affects Messi, a man who scarcely knows of a stadium that he has not bent to his will and a few more where the locals have applauded him off. But something rattled the little maestro early on. He tumbled on top of Robertson after Fabinho had slid in to curtail a twisting run and as the teams returned to their shape, the full-back shoved the Argentine’s head.
No exaggeration to say it was a grievance that Messi that carried throughout the game. He spent more time wagging a finger at his opponent than he usually dedicates to the missteps of mere mortals. It required Henderson to come running over in the end to shove Messi away from his team-mate although even the Liverpool captain seemed to be asking himself whether he was permitted to lay hands on the man in question.
It was worth the wait for this kind of game, from all the mediocrity this competition can throw up in its early stages to this attacking masterpiece in early May. It was quite something to hear Suarez being called a “cheat” by the Kop and then told in even more direct terms what they would have him do. You could argue that the simulation and the lobbying of the referee are among the least serious of the charges that could be laid against him, but then memories are short.
Liverpool scored the early goal they so badly needed. A mistake from Jordi Alba meant that possession was turned over deep in Barcelona territory on seven minutes and Sadio Mane was able to poke the ball into the path of Henderson’s surging run. He sidestepped Gerard Pique beautifully and Origi poked home the rebound.
By the end of the first half, Barcelona were back in this great attacking drama. Messi’s twisting, burrowing runs into the Liverpool half were the main incursion. There were a set of fine saves from Alisson, as the home team inevitably opened up, and then there were the tackles too.
Fabinho was booked for thundering into Suarez. James Milner went in on the same opponent. Henderson went down for a long period of treatment on his right knee after colliding with Alba. Sergio Busquets jumped into Fabinho for a high ball. Messi never quite got over Robertson. The full-back never came out for the second half, his calf caught accidentally by Suarez’s heel.
The collapse of Barcelona was a surprise to say the least, given how they had managed to get a hold on the game after Liverpool’s strong start. Klopp had moved Milner back to left-back, pushed Mane up alongside Origi and moved Xherdan Shaqiri to the left midfield position. There was another assist from the incomparable Trent Alexander-Arnold for Wijnaldum’s first.
Within two minutes he had scored a second, emerging unmarked to head in a Shaqiri’s cross. And then to the winner, created by a corner from Alexander-Arnold that deceived the Barcelona defence. The young Liverpudlian walked away as if to leave the ball to Shaqiri, dashed back and with the away defence asleep took his chance. Origi struck the cross first time, dispatching it into the top corner. It was that kind of night, one for the brave and the bold – and there was only one team that managed that.