This was the supposed to be the competition that mattered the least of the two that remained in the last days of Liverpool’s epic 2018-2019 season but over the course of 99 extraordinary minutes, suddenly it felt like this team, in this time, had found their calling at last.
No team comes back from three down to score four without reply against Barcelona 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. Monday night and Manchester City edged the Premier League just a little further from Liverpool’s grasp and then came Tuesday night when the response at Anfield was, quite frankly, stupendous.
This kind of comeback in a Champions league semi-final has never happened before against anyone, let along the Barcelona of the era of Lionel Messi, a man on a mission and having greatly declared his genius in the conclusion of the first leg. That this comeback happened without Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, assorted others, plus Jordan Henderson on one leg and Andy Robertson carted off at half-time will just add to the legend.
It was Robertson’s replacement, Georginio Wijnaldum who got goals two and three in the second half and the matchwinning hero was another dedicated occasional, Divock Origi – Jurgen Klopp’s specialist in the improbable. He struck his first on seven minutes, and the second with 11 minutes remaining and perhaps the greatest miracle Klopp has achieved is that in between times he was the best striker on the pitch, in some company.
Madrid on June 1, will be the ninth European Cup final of Liverpool’s history, this one against Tottenham Hotspur or Ajax Amsterdam, Klopp’s second in two years, and you have to think that they will be favourites for their sixth title, whoever the opposition. The kings of the comeback might just have outdone themselves this time, and by the end of the night there was no thought given to the league title.
It can take a while for the Champions League to serve up the best stuff but on nights such as these it is worth the wait. This was football played right on the edge, and if Liverpool were the team that had to risk it all then that mood seemed to creep into the way that their opponents played too.
There was a grievance that Messi that carried throughout the game borne of an early tangle with his Scottish equivalent, the Liverpool left-back Andy Robertson. The game’s greatest player spent more time wagging a finger and admonishing his opponent than he usually dedicates to the missteps of mere mortals. It required Jordan Henderson to come running over in the end and shove Messi away although even the Liverpool captain seemed to be asking himself whether he was permitted to lay hands on the man in question.
Whatever Messi did after that seemed to have rather more of a malevolent intent than the usual indifference with which he routinely inflicts pain on the opposition. Alongside him Luis Suarez simply did what he has always done and which he did to some effect at Anfield for a period of his career. In those days, of course, when he was straining every sinew in the Liverpool cause it really felt that he could do no wrong in their eyes but you suspect that they knew not all of it was right.
Even so it was quite something to hear their former favourite being called a “cheat” by the Kop and then told in even more direct terms what they would have liked him to 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 Suarez, but then memories are short.
Against all this as a backdrop 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 mnutes and Sadio Mane was able to poke the ball into the path of Henderson’s surging run. He sidestepped Gerard Pique beautifully and the rebound from his saved shot fell to Anfield’s man of the moment, Divock Origi, to score.
A slow burner of a start from Barcelona, who had been treated to a late fireworks display outside their Liverpool hotel the previous night. But they came good after that and this game was soon a great attacking drama. Messi’s twisting, burrowing runs into the Liverpool half were the main incursion and there was so much else to see. A set of fine saves from Alisson for one, as the home team inevitably opened up.
Then there were the tackles too. Fabinho booked for thundering into Suarez. Milner on the same opponent. Henderson down for a long period of treatment on his right knee after colliding with Alba. Sergio Busquets jumping into Fabinho for a high ball. Messi, who had been on the ground at the time, never quite got over Robertson shoving his head. The full-back had originally landed on top of him. Robertson never came out for the second half, a collision with Suarez off the ball having done for him.
Robertson had been treated for a while on the pitch in the first half, his problem seeming to have come from a relatively innocuous fall although it is upon such details that great new plans are hatched. Forced to make the change, Klopp brought on Wijnaldum and within ten minutes the tie was level.
The collapse of Barcelona was a surprise to say the least, given how they had managed to get a hold on the game after the strong start made by Liverpool. Klopp had moved Milner back to left-back, pushed Mane up alongside Origi and moved Shaqiri to the left midfield position. The first goal came from the right when Alexander-Arnold was once again the provider and Wijnaldum ran onto the cross.
Within two minutes he had scored a second, emerging unmarked to head in a cross from the newly-configured left side, when Milner had slipped a ball down the line for Shaqiri to cross. Barcelona’s three-goal lead had been erased and it was all they could do at that point just to stay in the game. They had been pressed into submission all over the pitch and whatever hope they had was in those runs from Messi. Philippe Coutinho barely made the hour mark before he was replaced with Nelson Semedo.
And then to the winner, created by a corner from Alexander-Arnold that deceived the Barcelona defence. He walked away as if to leave it to Shaqiri, dashed back and with the away defence asleep, Origi took the ball 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.