Liverpool. Champions League semi-finalists. The first time in a decade. Back among Europe’s elite. The only English club remaining in the competition. From 32 teams down to four, and Liverpool are there, dining at the high table once more.
You don’t have to step back very far in time to a point where Liverpool supporters wondered whether these days would ever arrive again. The memories of Rafa Benitez, Istanbul and Athens felt increasingly consigned to the past, as opposed to something Liverpool could realistically hope to achieve one more in the near future.
It’s difficult to overstate the scale of what Jürgen Klopp has achieved here. When the quarter-final draw came out, pitting Liverpool against the bookies’ favorites for the competition in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the odds were stacked heavily against Liverpool. It was in every way, the toughest possible scenario.
This City squad is the most expensively assembled squad in the history of the game. That point is worth emphasizing. They’ve strolled their way to the league title and already have one domestic trophy in the cabinet this season. For Sheikh Mansour, Guardiola and the players, Champions League glory is the essential objective in their quest to transform City into a genuine European powerhouse.
Liverpool, by contrast, steeped in European heritage, have walked this road before. In the first leg, Anfield showed how this identity endures, harnessing a unique, collective willpower beyond anything any other English club is capable of producing.
The first leg was beyond a Liverpool supporter’s wildest expectations. Yet the sense of anxiety heading into the return leg was fever-pitch. The possibility of throwing away a historic European night, surrendering such an unlikely 3-0 advantage, was a prospect too excruciating to contemplate.
When you think of the worst possible scenario, Gabriel Jesus follows that very script with the early goal every single Liverpool supporter was dreading. What followed was up there with the most nail-biting, stomach-churning halves of football you are ever likely to witness from a Liverpudlian perspective.
Wave after wave of City attack, Guardiola’s unorthodox, front-heavy formation suffocating Liverpool with an ever-tightening vice-like grip of immense pressure. Any time Liverpool did manage to get hold of possession, the ball was like a magnet, immediately sucked straight back into City’s control once more. There was no way out.
Bernardo Silva rattles the post from distance. There’s a couple of penalty claims from Raheem Sterling. Leroy Sané has a goal controversially chalked off for offside. Liverpool rode their luck to an extreme at times, but solace could be found in the fact City had not managed to build on their 1-0 lead when the referee blew for half-time.
That whistle came at the perfect time for Liverpool and whatever Klopp said, or tactically tweaked, a different side came out in the second half, playing with a renewed sense of bravery and determination to see this job through.
It was always the case that Liverpool needed to find the back of the net just once to put the tie more or less to bed. While the supporters were consumed by nerves, this mantra will have remained at the forefront of those on the pitch wearing red. No need to panic. Score once, and it’s over.
When the opportunity finally arrives, in the 56th minute, there is no other man on that pitch with the clarity of mind and technique to execute what will go down as an iconic Liverpool goal. It’s a sublime demonstration of skill and composure from Mo Salah, who stands still, drinking in the adoration of the rapturous away end, the coolest man in the stadium.
It was he who started off this two-legged victory, and he who finished it off. It’s what separates the great players from the very top bracket of world class. Stepping up in the most crucial moments, deciding the fate of contests of this magnitude. As soon as that ball nestles in the back of the net, City are down and out. There is no coming back.
Roberto Firmino adds the sheen to a stunning victory by sliding home the winner on the night, ensuring that Liverpool would not merely secure their passage to the semi-finals, but do so with a statement of intent that will have the continent stand up and take notice.
That’s three wins against Guardiola’s City in a matter of months. Twice in a week. The symbolic and psychological aspect of this is significant when it comes to challenging City next season. They are not the indomitable force many assumed only weeks ago.
There are so many individual performances to pull out, worthy of individual praise. Trent Alexander-Arnold, a 19-year-old academy graduate, repeatedly targeted throughout both legs, emerges as one of the standout players from the tie. It’s a quite incredible display of maturity which announces his arrival as a player capable of performing on the very biggest stage, whose future is without limits.
In Andy Robertson, Liverpool have a left-back who five years ago was playing in the Scottish third division, signed for £8.5 million from relegated Hull City. He too emerges as one of the outstanding players from this tie, a remarkable success story for Liverpool’s scouting department, embodying the tenacity and resilience which saw his side emerge triumphant.
Let’s talk about Dejan Lovren, also. This is a player who has been written off time and time again, widely lambasted by supporters and the wider media, deemed not good enough to play for a club of Liverpool’s stature. On the night, he is Liverpool’s man of the match, delivering an immense performance of bravery and focus on the biggest night of his professional career. It’s a display worthy of tremendous credit, a demonstration that he is capable of performing at the very highest level.
Alongside him, Virgil van Dijk is involved in City’s early goal, but is an island of calm and assurance thereafter, commanding those around him and marshaling the defence with the authority of a player very much living up to his status as the world’s most expensive defender.
In midfield, Klopp was without arguably his two first-choice central midfielders in Jordan Henderson and Emre Can- the two figures you would probably most want to start when protecting a 3-0 lead. Instead, Gini Wijnaldum- signed as an attacking midfielder from Newcastle just two seasons ago- was tasked with shielding the back four, up against two of the finest playmakers the Premier League has ever seen in David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne.
On either side, there’s James Milner, having a midfield renaissance beyond all expectations as he enters the twilight of his career, covering more ground than any other player. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, widely ridiculed when he first arrived at Liverpool, playing his first season as a central midfielder, putting his body on the line for the cause.
The front three need no description of their own.
It’s nights like these that players and supporters live for. It’s why Liverpool are a European heavyweight. For all City’s superior financial resources and superstar individuals, they could not match it, despite throwing everything at it.
When every Liverpool player is standing their, in front of the away fans at the end, clapping along to ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ and celebrating with the supporters, it’s a really rare and special moment. For many of them, it’s probably the best night of their professional careers and they’re choosing to share it with the fans, drinking it in.
When their players are walking off the bus to the sound of a megaphone blaring out pop music, into a shiny, spaceship-like stadium lined with plastic flags, it just isn’t the same. Atmospheres like that produced in the first leg at Anfield do make a difference. That kind of thing cannot be fabricated by corporate attempts to artificially generate something of the sort.
There is something strange about this City side, so supreme in their title triumph, but now with a prevailing sense of a season which promised so much, now somewhat underwhelming. It’s almost as if they are so used to winning comfortably, that whenever anything goes wrong- as has happened three times in the past week- it does not compute, and they malfunction.
As for Liverpool, there is nothing left to fear. Of course, Roma are now the favorable draw for the semi-finals, but having conquered the previous favorites for the competition, Liverpool have demonstrated that they are capable of beating anyone and they will continue to believe that is the case.
There was an excellent quote from Klopp after the game, as he said:
“The Champions League is not about perfection. It’s about the result.”
It’s a message worth reiterating. Liverpool will likely have to beat either Bayern Munich or Real Madrid if they are to make it Number Six in Kiev in May. Both of these sides are individually superior, but as both Liverpool and Roma have shown this week, that matters little in this competition.
Liverpool are just three games away from European glory now. There is every reason to believe they can go all the way. They have already surpassed all expectations.
Whatever the conclusion of this tale, it’s been one to savor.