The Champions League Semi-Finals, Act 1: Exit, Pursued by Divock Origi
There is a tendency for football to lean towards hubris these days, but sometimes, just occasionally, it lives up to the hype. This was not the match of the season – that honour belongs to an earlier round in this competition, the quarter-final second leg between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur – but it was the performance of the season, and it ranks amongst the greatest ever seen by a Liverpool team in Europe, which is saying something in itself. To win over two legs at this stage of the Champions League, from three goals down and without even having scored an away goal in the first match, would considered to be an extraordinary achievement for almost any club in Europe. To do so against Barcelona is a whole other order of unlikeliness, and ultimately required a moment when everything we know to be true stopped being true to happen.
It just so happens that one of the very few clubs who could manage something like this were on the receiving end of it last night. This isn’t supposed to happen to a club like Barcelona under any circumstances, and there didn’t appear to be any mitigating circumstances going into last night’s match. Recently confirmed as the Spanish champions yet again, Barcelona had brushed Liverpool aside in the first leg without too many major difficulties, with Lionel Messi dropping in a free-kick that may have defied the laws of physics to seal a comfortable win and another billion fawning social media mentions.
Prior to kick-off, the position in which Liverpool found themselves had felt like a perfect storm. They couldn’t afford to concede, and they needed their clean sheet, but they also needed goals, and they needed to find a way of grabbing them with both Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino unavailable, and less than twenty-four hours after the blow of seeing Manchester City edge ahead again in the race for the Premier League title with just the one match left to play. Whether taken from the point of view of personnel, psychology, just about any rational attempt at pre-match analysis, none of what followed should have happened.
What was truly remarkable about last night’s Liverpool performance was how absolutely controlled it was. There was little evidence of nerves after they took an early lead through Divok Origi, who rolled the ball in from close range after ter Stegen had palmed away Jordan Henderson’s low shot. They gegen-strangled the life out of the Barcelona midfield, leaving Messi looking increasingly isolated in his current marauding free role and Luis Suarez, once a hero in this stadium for all his shortcomings, like a dog on a chain – a snarling, but ultimately impotent, irrelevance.
There remained a collective holding of the breath every time the ball went Messi’s way, but apart from a couple of fairly desultory efforts he was stifled and closed out completely, and when Barcelona found themselves with that couple of nano-seconds that allows for a shot on goal, they found Alisson an impenetrable wall in the Liverpool goal. Meanwhile, Anfield fizzed with booing and hissing every time Suarez touched the ball, as though he’d turned up there sporting a tattoo of Sir Matt Busby on his forehead. Hell hath no fury like a Kop scorned.
Liverpool, meanwhile, kept their heads after having taken that early lead. It was, for an hour, an unenviable position in which to find themselves. The perfect storm was, for all the progress they’d made, still blowing wildly around them. They had to keep pushing forward to try to further cut that deficit, but at the same time a single Barcelona goal would have added two to their required tally, and would likely puncture the febrile atmosphere inside Anfield as well. With a 54,000 crowd making something like the sound of twenty jet liners taking off at the same time, the composure and control that they maintained under pressure was something to behold.
With their main attacking threats conspicuous by their absence, any Liverpool hero was going to have to emerge from somewhere unlikely, and almost exactly an hour after they took the lead in the first place, Georginio Wijnaldum, not usually considered a great scorer of goals, filled the role to perfection, stroking a low cross from the left in off ter Stegen’s elbow for a second and then wrestling the ball from the goalkeeper to get back on with things again as quickly as possible – a move that usually smacks of desperation but somehow didn’t, last night. The noise inside Anfield rose again, reaching what might anywhere else have been a crescendo less three minutes later when Wijnaldum, again completely unmarked, headed in another cross from the left to put Liverpool three up on the night and level on aggregate.
Although the final scoreline remained hanging in the balance, such was the control that Liverpool had taken over the midfield that Barcelona’s attacks felt like little more than retaliatory shots. If it requires truly original thinking to beat a club like this, though, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold had a little something up his sleeve. Alexander-Arnold had been outstanding all evening – quite possibly the best player on the pitch, which is an achievement in itself, considering the company he was in – but his quick-wittedness in feigning disinterest in taking a corner before turning on his heels and rolling the ball through for Origi to flick the ball past ter Stegen betrayed a speed of thought too quick for a Barcelona defence that momentarily quite literally took its eye off the ball.
Could there have been a more appropriate way for this match to be decided? Modern football can feel like a thoroughly scripted and stratified experience, a lot of the time. The dossiers. The intensive analysis. Every move pored over in Ultra High Definition at a twentieth of its normal speed. Sometimes, though, a game departs from its moorings and veers off into improvisation. This requires a moment when muscle memory becomes something to be cast to one side in favour of mental agility in order to do something that no-one would have conceivably thought you would – perhaps even could – do. Barcelona’s entire defence was looking in the other direction when the light bulb appeared above Alexander-Arnold’s head. These are the points at which hearts leap into throats and stomachs clench, when seconds can last for hours and it can feel as though the world might not even restart. They’re the reminders of why we fall in love with this ridiculous game in the first place.
There will probably be bad poetry and even worse photoshopped pictures, and the mawkishness may be cloying to the point of distraction for the rest of us, but the worst excesses of any fan base being held up as though they reflect the whole is one of modern football’s multitude of dick moves. Last night, though, that Anfield crowd played its full part in building an atmosphere that like may well have proved enough of a distraction to the Barcelona players to cause the lapses in concentration that we witnessed. Lovers of silver linings may also wish to reflect upon the fact that we were also spared yet another Lionel Messi circle jerk last night. There will, of course, be plenty of people muttering “name on the trophy” this morning, but many learned people were saying that about Messi and Barcelona just twenty-four hours ago.
That script, battered and scorched a little round the edges, will be picked up again this morning and re-read through fresh – if somewhat bleary – eyes, today. There are three and a half weeks until the final in Madrid, and flight websites will already be groaning under the pressure of tens of thousands of Liverpool supporters seeking to make their arrangements to travel out for the occasion. Bank accounts will be stretched to breaking point. Complaints will be made about the ticketing arrangements. All familiar rituals. Do Liverpool have their name on the Champions League trophy? Not quite. Not yet. But they took a huge step that no-one expected them to be able to manage last night. Not just the performance of the round, but a performance for the ages.