Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona: Anfield’s Greatest Night

The squad celebrate in front of The Kop
A year ago, Fabinho Tavares was in Monaco. The man hailing from Campinas in Brazil only arrived at Liverpool in the summer: now, arm-in-arm with his diaspora of teammates, he sings the club anthem as passionately as any of the supporters on The Kop in celebration of the most unlikely of triumphs against Barcelona. With this team, at this moment, the message conveyed by the song is symbiotic: it is a pledge by those wearing the shirt that they will always give everything for the fans, and a promise in return that such commitment will be met with unwavering loyalty.

It is this which makes nights such as these possible: the wall of noise from the first whistle willed Liverpool onwards, simultaneously conveying the fierce pride in the team that is not contingent on the result and yet also the real belief that if anyone can do this it is Liverpool. This faith was not misplaced – against all odds, against all logic, a 3-goal deficit was overturned against the side captained by the best player ever to grace a football pitch.

After the first leg, Jose Mourinho gave his thoughts on Liverpool’s prospects. He remarked, with a wry smile, that at Anfield on European nights they can even score goals that are not goals – this was a reference to Luis Garcia’s ghost goal in 2005, the year Liverpool last went on to lift the Champions League. Sure enough, in another semi-final fourteen years later, a miracle was to occur again.

It would be a disservice to this team, however, to chalk the win up as little more than a freakish anomaly, a case of the opposition or the officials wilting when faced with the Anfield noise and the historic weight that underwrites the claims that it makes. As Klopp said in his post-match remarks, the success was made possible by a convergence of many factors at once: a crucial element, of course, is the sheer talent of the footballers in his team. It can be said with some confidence that this is the best Liverpool side of a generation.

They have now reached back-to-back European finals, and in the league look on track to finish with the third-highest top-flight points tally of all time. The very fact that they outclassed Barcelona in a 4-0 win should speak for itself – only the very best in the world can even stand a chance at achieving such an outlandish result. Messi, Suarez, Busquets, Alba, Ter Stegen – all of these are masters of their crafts, and the list could go on, and yet they were not merely nullified but decimated.

The quality is on display throughout this Liverpool team, from the back to the front. Alisson has proved to be the world class addition in goal that fans craved, and could well be the difference when they return to the final this season to right the wrongs from Kyiv Рhe played a pivotal role in ensuring Barcelona did not get a crushing away goal, thus contributing to overturning a 3-goal Catalan lead in the Champions League just as he did with Roma last year. There would not even have been a semi-final to salvage had he not produced a superhuman stop against Napoli way back in the final group stage game: football repeatedly confirms the clich̩ that it is a game of ludicrously tight margins, and elite players can provide the infinitesimal edge that makes the world of difference.

There is no shortage of such players in defence either – indeed, while the Brazilian had to be alert on a couple of occasions to repel Coutinho and Messi, the wall in front of him ensured he was not even as busy as he was at the weekend against Newcastle. Virgil van Dijk deserves all of the plaudits he is receiving: he was already worth every penny of his eye-watering price tag when he signed, but he has since matured into arguably the best defender in world football. When he hangs up his boots, he will be remembered as one of the greats of the game: he is that good. Messi, usually the master of creating pockets of space out of nothing, had no answer to him: the greatest of all time was anonymous.

The Dutch colossus was far from unsupported – Joel Matip has put in the quiet hard yards during this campaign to climb the pecking order, and has showed that he is by no means out of place against the very best. His skill set compliments Van Dijk’s to form a formidable partnership. They are flanked by unquestionably the two best full-backs in the country. Andy Robertson has been a revelation since signing for a meagre £8 million from Hull, and played his part in keeping Barcelona’s superstars quiet before being forced off at half time.  Klopp’s one real mistake over the two legs was leaving Trent Alexander-Arnold out of the first game, but the boy from the academy still had enough time to pull his team back from the brink in a way he has dreamed of since his days of spying on Gerrard at Melwood.

He set up the second, tirelessly closing down Jordi Alba before picking a pinpoint cross worthy of his idol – when Wijnaldum tapped in, the words of “hello, hello, here we go” seemed to echo down the years. The crucial fourth, the goal that decided the tie, also came courtesy of a piece of magic from the full-back; he showed the ingenuity and presence of mind to whip in a quick corner, catching Barcelona unawares and allowing Divock Origi to finish past Ter Stegen. It is hard to encapsulate with mere words what it means to see a local boy who understands the club so intimately playing a leading role in its revitalisation: he is surely an icon in the making.

The local link is something to be cherished, but what is even more precious is the extent to which the wider squad has bought into the ethos of the club. This is not a group of players just doing their job: one need only look again at Fabinho singing his heart out, or Gini Wijnaldum in tears, or the injured Mo Salah turning up to cheer on the impossible sporting a “Never Give Up” shirt. For this, so much of the credit must go to the one factor to which the manager did not draw attention: Jurgen Klopp himself.

He demands of his players what he demands of the fans; he requires a team of believers rather than doubters, a team who lives the game like he does and who can feed off the emotion of it and turn it into results. Those who do not want to commit fully must leave: Coutinho, pulled off after an hour and watching from the bench as the humiliation of his new side was completed, is the living embodiment of this. What remains is a side who will never say die, a group of players and fans who are truly Liverpool regardless of from where they come.  

By all accounts, they had reasonable grounds to write themselves off. In front of the defence the squad looked to be falling apart at the seams: Naby Keita was ruled out for the season just as he started to hit his best form, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missed out due to another minor setback following his long lay-off, and crucially the talismanic figures of Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah were both unavailable. To those outside of the bubble that Klopp has forged, there was no hope.

Within ten minutes, however, a stand-in had them ahead; Divock Origi has had remarkable peaks and troughs in his time at the club, but his recent fine form has come at such a pivotal time that he has earned the affections of fans for life. The loss of Robertson at the break could have dented this momentum – instead, his replacement scored twice in two minutes to restore parity in the tie at 3-3. Who knows what would have been had Suarez not been so intent on riling up Robertson, and Wijnaldum had never taken the field: once again, ludicrously tight margins. Origi’s second may have been made by Alexander-Arnold, but it still required an excellent finish; he showcased quick reactions to deftly divert the ball beyond Ter Stegen under the most pressured circumstances imaginable. With that flick, the impossible was accomplished.

Barcelona’s role in all this cannot be reduced to the mere victims of Liverpool’s onslaught, and the inquests as to how this was allowed to happen have already started in the Spanish press, but Jurgen Klopp and his warriors will not even be remotely interested in the verdict. In their minds, they know how this happened: a group of world class players gave everything they had, willed on by the fervent belief of 50,000 fans and millions more not in the stadium, inspired by one of the greatest managers of a generation. Sometimes this is enough for silverware, and sometimes it is not, but it is all that can be asked for – one more push in Madrid may well be enough to deliver the trophy that Klopp’s reign so richly warrants.  

 - @JamesMartin013