Saturday, 21 December 2019

Liverpool, champions of the world

World champions: Liverpool lift the Club World Cup (BBC screenshot)

They did it the hard way, but after 120 minutes of hard work Liverpool were crowned world champions in Doha. A stubborn Flamengo side and some questionable officiating were ultimately not enough to thwart one of the greatest club sides ever assembled, who further secured their legacy by adding another trophy to an ever-expanding collection.

The Premier League leaders were made to fight for it, but they have shown time and time again that they are more than willing to do so. The official status as the best on the planet is really only telling people what they already knew: this team is something special.

The victory delivers the first Club World Cup in Liverpool’s storied history. Anfield has seen some great sides over the years, but now for the first time they can sing of ‘the best football team in the world’ backed up by silverware.

They should have been 1-0 up within the opening minute. A simple chip over the top found Roberto Firmino clear of the back line, but he could not cope with an awkward bounce and fired over the top under pressure from the recovering centre-half. The early barrage did not relent, as Liverpool continued to exploit the space in behind – minutes later Klopp’s side were in again, this time with Salah, but Naby Keita also struck over from the Egyptian’s pull-back.

Memories of the 2005 final were conjured up as the minutes ticked by without a goal. The champions of Europe continued to dominate, but rather than a Rogerio Ceni masterclass it was profligate finishing keeping the scores level. There was some solace in the fact that Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa was being completely stifled, but with red shirts flooding forward routinely there were creeping fears that one counter-attack could make things extremely uncomfortable.

These doubts were hardly assuaged by two near-misses from Bruno Henrique, who repeatedly found joy down Trent Alexander-Arnold’s flank. One of these opportunities came from a poor piece of distribution from Alisson, providing a stark demonstration of how one lapse in concentration could swing the game. Indeed, as the half progressed the Brazilian side started to move into the ascendency – a wildly skewed clearance from the usually imperious Virgil van Dijk summed up the loss of composure.

A series of soft free-kicks given by the referee did not help Liverpool’s attempts to regain their early rhythm, but the officials cannot be blamed for the sloppy passes and naïve defending that dogged Liverpool’s game throughout much of the first period. Flamengo looked sharper and hungrier: their semi-final did take place earlier, but excuses and mitigation is not what wins teams the title of world champions. This was a long way from Liverpool at its devastating best.

A strong start to the second half was needed. The Premier League leaders obliged, but in a cruel reflection of the first half Firmino once again failed to convert from close range. This time he was tantalisingly close, crashing his strike against the inside of the post and away. The challenge lay in sustaining the pressure – Salah flashed one wide moments later, offering more encouragement to those who had travelled from Merseyside.

Instead of the breakthrough, there came a creeping sense of déjà vu. Following the two big chances for Liverpool to take the lead, Flamengo found their feet – it was only a good Alisson save that prevented Gabigol from opening the scoring. This earned the former Internacional stopper even more jeers from the numerous fans who had made the pilgrimage from Rio de Janeiro.

The hour mark came and went without a goal. Extra-time would not have been high on Klopp’s Christmas list, with the festive schedule already packed – the German was visibly frustrated on the touchline as his side toiled. Nonetheless, an extra thirty minutes looked increasingly likely as both sides struggled to create. The problems were intensified by a nasty injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, forced off after a hefty blow to his ankle.

Captain Jordan Henderson nearly averted the extra period with a lovely strike from long distance, but he was denied hero status by a smart diving save. It then looked as though Salah would be handed the chance to win it from the spot after Mane broke clear and went down under the challenge from Rafinha. However, a lengthy VAR check - purportedly over whether the incident occurred inside or outside the box - somehow contrived to give no foul at all. The match continued into extra time.

By this point proceedings were threatening to descend into farce, as the Brazilians tried everything to hold on. The theatrics and gamesmanship, present throughout the 90 minutes, were turned up to a new level: the highlight was undoubtedly Gabigol departing on a stretcher with cramp.

But this Liverpool side did not lift the European Cup and reach the summit of the Premier League without being able to fight to the bitter end. In the 99th minute, the deadlock was finally broken. Fittingly, it was Firmino who found the net at the third time of asking. Mane played him through after a defence-splitting pass from Henderson, and he showed the composure to sit the goalkeeper down and fire it into the unguarded net.

The rest of the match passed as an exercise in game management. Liverpool showed the maturity that has been their biggest area of improvement in recent seasons, keeping chances to a minimum. Even the best sides are subject to some jitters in the last minutes of a final, and hearts were in mouths when Lincoln skied a chance from a great position, but Klopp’s side saw it out to earn the crown of world champions.

It was not the finest game that this team of stars has played, but it was perhaps the most fitting way to reach the top of the world. There is class and brilliance, but there is resilience and guile in equal measure. It is this which separates them from even the great sides of old, none of whom ever triumphed on this stage: it may well be the same qualities which see the Premier League drought ended come the end of the season.

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