Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool: Match review

Sometimes, in football, in life, everything just goes against you. Liverpool had one of those nights in Kiev. It’s the nature of the sport. It can be cruel, brutal and soul-crushing. Those three words are an apt description of how this latest cup final defeat feels in the immediate aftermath.

Liverpool have been the best side in the Champions League this season. No team has ever scored more goals in this competition in a single season. The football, at times, has been stunning beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Manchester City, Premier League champions with 100 points, sent crashing out, 5-1. Porto demolished, 5-0. Roma, in the semi-finals, 5-0 down at Anfield. This kind of thing simply doesn’t happen at this level.

To win the trophy, though, you always need a bit of luck to get over the line in the final. It’s a game of fine margins. Real Madrid have become the masters of riding their luck and obtaining those fine margins over the past three years. Liverpool, on this occasion, were on the wrong side of pretty much everything.

It’s a really strong, aggressive start from Jürgen Klopp’s side. Real Madrid were second best by some distance, struggling to cope with Liverpool’s sheer speed and intensity. When Dani Carvajal lashes the ball out 40-yards for a corner under absolutely no pressure at all, you could tell Zinedine Zidane’s players were rattled. Karim Benzema put the ball out of play under no pressure, too. Cristiano Ronaldo was more or less invisible.

And then disaster struck. When your best player, your talisman, has to leave the field with a shoulder injury after half an hour, it’s a hammer blow of the heaviest possible kind. Sergio Ramos knew precisely what he was doing has he wrenched Salah’s arm round at a bizarre angle before hauling him to the floor, as evidenced by his knowing grin to the linesman immediately afterwards.

The impact on Liverpool was two-fold. Obviously, the attack carried nowhere near the same level of threat thereafter, as Adam Lallana’s lack of pace and match fitness severely limited Liverpool’s forward line. Perhaps most significantly, though, was the mental aspect of Salah’s injury.

The players were visibly shaken at their star player having to go off so early in tears. They knew they had an almighty battle on their hands to get the job down without the Egyptian’s sensational ability to call upon, and that was the pivotal moment upon which the contest turned on its head.

Real Madrid were given an enormous lift and began to strengthen their grip on proceedings, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos demonstrating once more why they have been the best midfield duo in world football for several years now. Liverpool’s pressing fell off dramatically as they dropped deeper and deeper, with that initial spark of the early stages put out by the shock of Salah’s untimely departure.

That said, Real Madrid were hardly battering the door down before they were gifted the opener in the most absurd circumstances imaginable, as Loris Karius inexplicably rolled the ball into Karim Benzema’s outstretched knee, as it trickled slowly over the line in agonising fashion.

Sadio Mané briefly gave Liverpool hope after stabbing home the equaliser from a corner, and shortly after saw a superb effort cannon back off the post, only for Gareth Bale to come off the bench and score one of the greatest goals you’ll ever see, a sensational bicycle kick ruthlessly dispatched with a stroke of utter genius into the back of the net. Fine margins.

When something like that happens, there’s not an awful lot you can do but applaud a truly magnificent individual effort, for which no Liverpool defenders could take any blame.

It felt like a killer blow at the time, and was compounded by another howler from Karius as he spilled Bale’s dipping 30-yard strike into the back of his own net to cap off a nightmarish evening for the German keeper.

It was a harrowing sight to see him in tears, apologising to the away supporters for his costly errors and in truth, it’s difficult to see a way back for him now at the club given the likely damaging effect this will have on his confidence.

To see such disgusting abuse thrown in his direction via social media is a sorry indictment of the way supporters treat footballers online, and while such a performance at this level is inexcusable, those errors were not intentional and from a human perspective, he’ll be going through a quite horrible time and should never have to face such vile treatment from his own supporters.

In the short term, it’s a really bitter pill to swallow and it’s absolutely gut-wrenching that such a remarkable European campaign should end in such devastating fashion. It’s the feeling of regret, that Salah’s injury deprived everyone of seeing a fully fledged Liverpool side push Real Madrid all the way, and only saw a pale imitation of the side thereafter.

Yet the memories of this run, of Porto, of Man City, of Roma, will live on. None of that is taken away by this single defeat and those nights were up there with the most joyous Liverpool fans have experienced this century. Only one team can win this competition and for Liverpool to go so close, with a squad depleted by injuries to key players (and having sold Philippe Coutinho in January), while disappointing in the extreme to fall short at the final hurdle once more, has exceeded all expectations.

It’s been a quite incredible season and with new summer signings to come in and further bolster this already brilliant Liverpool squad, the club is still on a steep upward trajectory under Klopp, in the best shape it has been in for some time.

With Naby Keita set to arrive, and a likely move for Nabil Fekir on the horizon, this Liverpool side is still far from the finished product and will continue it’s exciting evolution next season and beyond. With Champions League football already secured one more for 2018-19, Liverpool are very much back, dining at Europe’s high table once more.

Right now it hurts, a lot. It will take a while to fully get over that feeling of dreams being crushed. But to lose a final, you have to be in the final. The whole point in following a football team is to live the kind of joy and elation Liverpool have delivered throughout this latest chapter in the club’s European history, which so few clubs ever get to experience.

It’s been one hell of a ride. This single result doesn’t change any of that.

 

 

 

Liverpool 2017-18 Premier League end of season review

Job done. For the first time since 2009, Liverpool have achieved back-to-back top four finishes and have guaranteed their place in the Champions League for the 2018-19 season, courtesy of the fact that 4th place in the Premier League automatically qualifies four the group stages.

Granted, it became a slightly more complicated task than it ever needed to be, as points were spurned against the likes of Everton, West Brom (from 2-0 up), Stoke, all of which could be attributed to a combination of tired legs from the Champions League exertions and the selection of players whose lack of minutes this season meant they lacked any kind of rhythm.

The defeat against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge set up a potentially nail-biting final day for the second season in a row, only for Antonio Conte’s side to buckle with just a point from the final two games versus Huddersfield and Newcastle, thus making the task at hand a whole lot more comfortable for Jürgen Klopp and his players.

Yet Liverpool still had a job to do against Brighton, not least to make certain of top four, but also to regain some lost momentum in recent weeks ahead of the Champions League final in Kiev in less than two weeks time. As final days of the season go, this was just about the perfect afternoon in every respect, as Liverpool became the only side in the entire English Football League to finish the season unbeaten in the league at home.

An emphatic 4-0 thrashing, with Mo Salah breaking the record for goals in a 38-game Premier League season (32; his 44th in all competitions), while Dominic Solanke and Andy Robertson bagged their first goals for the club. Klopp was even able to substitute the entire front three in order to avoid any unnecessary risk of injury, giving valuable minutes to the returning Adam Lallana, who appeared sharp and will be an important asset to have as an option on the bench against Real Madrid.

There should be absolutely no underestimating what an achievement this is for Liverpool. While top four is often treated as the minimum expectation, the reality is that there are six strong sides in this league now- including two financial behemoths in the Manchester clubs- and that to finish in the top four is a difficult feat in isolation.

But to do so while also reaching a Champions League final with a squad down to its bare bones due to injuries to the likes of Joel Matip, Emre Can, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joe Gomez- and until recently, Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne- is a remarkable accomplishment which deserves enormous credit.

The physical and mental energy this group of players have expended in order to reach the Champions League final has been vast, such that there has been an inevitable drop off in the league form. To haul themselves over the line- and to do so in the end with a five-point cushion over Chelsea- represents another season of significant progression, despite the slightly lower points tally in comparison to last campaign.

To put this into context, no English side has finished in the top four AND reached the Champions League final since 2011. On top of that is the fact that Liverpool have by far the lowest net spend out of any of the top six clubs since 2014, with £18 million. Spurs are 5th in that period with an overall net spend of £50 million, while Chelsea (£119 million) and Arsenal (£166 million) still linger well behind the two Manchester clubs, both of whom have a net spend of over £400 million in the same period.

What Klopp has done since his arrival in 2015 is to bridge this financial divide through astute signings and improving players on the training ground, building an identity and a distinct brand of football which has produced some of the most scintillating and memorable performances of any Liverpool side in many a year.

Consider that Liverpool’s two first choice full backs this season have been an £8 million signing from relegated Hull City and a 19-year-old academy product, both of whom have been outstanding and look set to be permanent features of the side for the foreseeable future.

We’ve witnessed Loris Karius display the kind of form which earned him his impressive reputation in Germany, while James Milner’s magnificent midfield renaissance has been another unlikely success story in a season largely dominated by the sheer and utter genius of a certain little Egyptian signed from Roma for what is now a scarcely believable £36.9 million.

It’s an individual season from Salah which goes down in the history books having surpassed even the very wildest of expectations. It’s now almost laughable to think that there were some doubts and concerns from some corners when Liverpool were initially linked to him. 44 goals, 14 assists and several cabinets full of individual accolades- including the prestigious PFA Player of the Season, and of course the Golden Boot- Liverpool have themselves a bonafide, world-class superstar who must now be considered alongside the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the highest echelons of the elite bracket of the world’s finest footballers.

He’s scored virtually every type of possible goal, both against the lesser sides and in the biggest games in high-pressure moments, while his goalscoring exploits have also been astonishingly consistent across the course of the campaign, scoring against 17 different sides in the league (another record) with his longest goalless run being just three games (which has only happened on two occasions). There aren’t really enough words to describe his genius.

It speaks volumes of Salah’s brilliance that Roberto Firmino has developed into a world class number nine with 27 goals to his name, and yet finds himself only the second best player for Liverpool this season. The Brazilian’s unique skillset mark him out as the perfect fulcrum of this Liverpool attack, as it is Firmino’s movement, pressing and linkup play which creates the optimum environment for Salah to thrive.

Sadio Mané, meanwhile- Liverpool’s Player of the Season last time out- has somewhat been overshadowed by both Salah and Firmino, enduring a patchy first half of the season before finding his groove and adapting his game to fulfil the role of a quasi-number-ten link man between midfield and attack, knitting play together and taking up unorthodox pockets of space in slightly deeper positions, rather than playing as an out and out winger. His sheer intelligence- as well as his obvious physical and technical assets- make him such a precocious talent who remains a vital cog in the machine Klopp is building.

It speaks volumes of what Liverpool have achieved that Philippe Coutinho’s name has hardly been mentioned since his £149 million move to Barcelona in January- a decision which has seen the side move on to another level in his absence. While many were deeply concerned about the lack of a direct replacement at the time and the potential impact on Liverpool’s top four and Champions League prospects, Klopp has been absolutely vindicated in letting a player go who had made it clear he did not want to be a part this project any longer.

In came Virgil van Dijk, whose impact in his first half-season since his protracted transfer from Southampton finally came through, has been nothing short of sensational. The Dutchman has been entirely unphased by his status as the most expensive defender all time, such that the £75 million price tag is barely ever spoken about these days.

Winning 72.6% of his duels, van Dijk has the highest duel success rate of any player in the Premier League and on top of that, his Xabi Alonso-esque raking passes and Jamie Carragher-esque leadership and organisational qualities have made him a tremendous acquisition, fully justifying Klopp’s choice to stay patient and wait for his man, rather than sign an alternative centre back in the summer.

Although van Dijk alone has not been the saviour to all Liverpool’s defensive issues, he has certainly played a significant role in transforming the back line and instilling a new sense of assurance and confidence in the way Liverpool defend, such that set pieces are no longer a cause of panic.

Quite incredibly, Liverpool have conceded the fewest goals (22) of any side in the last 29 league games and have therefore had the best defensive record in the league for 75% of the season after the early hammerings against Man City and Spurs away from home. It’s a stunning statistic and one which defies the general narrative around Liverpool’s defensive frailties, and one which, if Liverpool can continue and build upon next season, could be the crucial difference in sustaining a serious title challenge.

The other obvious area for improvement lies in the number of points dropped at home by drawing games against the likes of Burnley, Everton, West Brom and Stoke. A few penalty decisions wouldn’t go amiss, either, as Liverpool end the campaign having won just one penalty at Anfield (fewer than Spurs), with some quite staggering fouls completely ignored by referees who appear hellbent on ‘proving’ how they won’t be swayed by the Kop- an absurd and worrying trend.

There has been a plethora of joyous moments to saviour, from Ragnar Klavan’s 94th minute diving header winner against Burnley away, to the second-half blitz which demolished Man City at Anfield, to Salah’s stunning four-goal haul against Watford in the snow. Upon reflection, those two 2-1 victories against Leicester City and Burnley either side of New Year’s Day stand out as pivotal games in terms of defining how the remainder of the season played out, as Liverpool dug in and scraped out 6 points despite being well below their best level.

The only real sour note come the end of the season is the cruel injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whose debut season has been a pleasure to watch, overcoming much initial scrutiny and unjust criticism to become an integral part of the side, bringing pace, drive, dynamism and creativity to the midfield, forging a hugely promising relationship with Salah.

Reports suggest that Chamberlain won’t return until November at the earliest, which is an enormous blow both for the player, who now misses the Champions League final and the World Cup (in which he would probably have warranted a starting spot), as well as Liverpool. Both on and off the pitch, he has shown himself to be a class act, immersing him in the values of the club and becoming a genuine favorite among the supporters.

We find ourselves at what feels like a critical juncture in the club’s modern history, living through what is one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating periods supporters have experienced in a long while. Most importantly, none of this feels like the end of the road, or a flash in the pan, rather it is just the latest step forward in a journey of perpetual progression under Klopp which has seen the club catapulted back among Europe’s elite, and well on the way to re-establishing themselves as a regular Champions League outfit.

For prospective transfer targets, it’s a hugely attractive proposition and there can be few players in world football- other than those already at the very top clubs- who wouldn’t want to be a part of this project, playing alongside this group of players for this manager. Klopp has restored that elite status and with Champions League football on offer once more, one can expect a couple of significant acquisitions to follow in the footsteps of the incoming Naby Keita in the coming weeks.

Whatever happens in Kiev now, Liverpool have already achieved their basic objective at the start of the season and have yet another European campaign to look forward to next season. There is an ever growing sense that something truly special is brewing and while Pep Guardiola’s centurions will present a formidable obstacle once, there is every reason to believe Liverpool are positioning themselves for a serious title tilt as City’s strongest challengers next season.

The Reds are on the march.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roma 4-2 Liverpool (6-7 agg.): Review

A lot is spoken about the state of the modern game and the manner in which football clubs at the elite level have morphed into global institutions, a sport largely shaped by who has the superior financial resources, increasingly detached from the supporters who comprise so much of what defines a club’s very existence.

What Liverpool did in Rome on Wednesday night went beyond reaching a European Cup final for the eighth time in the club’s history. The image of the players standing in front of the away support, holding a banner in Sean Cox’s name (as requested by Jordan Henderson), is one that will live long in the memory.

Here are a group of footballers who have experienced the greatest night of their professional careers together, creating their own piece of history. They choose to come out from the dressing room and share this moment with the supporters who have followed them, driven them on throughout this remarkable European campaign.

There’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, a 19-year-old kid playing for his childhood club, having played a prominent role in reaching a Champions League final against Real Madrid, going absolutely berserk in front of the away end alongside 18-year-old Ben Woodburn, dancing to the soundtrack of Allez Allez Allez. Two teenagers from the academy, quite literally living the dream.

It’s worth taking a step back in times like these in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of what this Liverpool side has achieved. Just over three years ago, Liverpool lost 6-1 against Stoke City in Steven Gerrard’s final game. It felt like the beginning of a slow, painful slide towards mediocrity while the chasm between Liverpool and their so-called rivals appeared vast.

Step forward into the present, and Jürgen Klopp has elevated the club right back into Europe’s elite in what is just his second full season in charge. The scale of transformation in such a short space of time is phenomenal. Just think- which prospective transfer target wouldn’t want to be a part of this team?

To be in this position is beyond the wildest expectations of even the most optimistic of supporters. A lot of people, a lot of football fans- most in fact- will never get to experience anything like this. So drink it in.

There are thirty-two teams in the Champions League group stages. Financial behemoths such as Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, and Manchester City. There’s perennial Italian champions, Juventus. Lionel Messi and Barcelona. All have fallen and just two remain.

Liverpool have reached this position with resources vastly inferior to the aforementioned sides. A 19-year-old academy product at right-back. A left back signed for £8 million from Hull City. A goalkeeper and a centre back in Loris Karius and Dejan Lovren whom many had completely written off and were consigned to the proverbial waste bin of players deemed not worthy of wearing the shirt.

A captain in Jordan Henderson who has been widely lambasted beyond all reason throughout virtually the entirety of his Liverpool career, whose leadership has been clear for all to see throughout these past two knock-out rounds in particular, stepping up to the plate and making himself counted on the very biggest stage.

This is a Liverpool squad down to its bare bones in terms of numbers. Joel Matip and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out for the season. Emre Can seemingly having disappeared from the face of the earth and almost certainly heading for the exit door this summer. Adam Lallana- so influential last season- has barely kicked a ball this time round. Nathaniel Clyne, likewise.

In January, Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho- arguably the best player at the club for the past three seasons or so- to Barcelona for £149 million, and decided not to pursue a direct replacement. Klopp believed his squad would be able to not only survive in the Brazilian’s absence but progress to another level. The way in which Coutinho’s departure acted as a catalyst for a new-found sense of unity and cohesion within this Liverpool side and the supporter base is worthy of recognition. To lose a player of that quality and achieve what Liverpool have done in the second half of this season speaks volumes of both the manager and the players.

It has been no ordinary European campaign. Many dismissed the two 7-0 wins in the group stage against Maribor and Spartak Moscow by focusing on the relative lack of quality shown by the opposition, but the fact of the matter is that these results simply do not happen in this competition. Those two 7-0 wins were a precursor for what was to come.

Champions League knock-out ties are supposed to be cagey affairs. A 0-0 draw away from home would be considered a decent result for most sides. Perhaps a narrow 1-0 lead to take into the second leg. At this elite level, sides very rarely ever run away with the tie in the first leg. Liverpool, though, don’t play by these rules.

Liverpool’s opponents in the qualifying round- Hoffenheim- had gone an entire Bundesliga season undefeated at home. Porto, Liverpool’s opponents in the last sixteen, still remain unbeaten at home domestically this season. Manchester City are on target for a record points tally having already been crowned Premier League champions with games to spare.

Liverpool 6-3 Hoffenheim

Liverpool 5-0 Porto

Liverpool 5-1 Man City

All of them systematically dismantled by the ruthless genius of Mané, Salah and Firmino, supported by a cast of grafters behind who provide the platform which enables them to unleash their explosive attacking talent.

And then on to Roma. Favourable opponents over Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, sure, but that comeback against Barcelona, sending the Catalans crashing out with a sensational 3-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico, was repeatedly cited as evidence that they should not be underestimated.

To their credit, Roma gave a strong account of themselves over the two legs. To haul themselves back into the tie from 5-0 down at Anfield was impressive. It’s not easy to go away from home with a three-goal lead. Roma were always going to throw everything at it, playing without fear and with nothing to lose. Liverpool, by contrast, had everything to lose. This is not a side built to defend a lead by sitting back and soaking up pressure.

Prior to the second leg, Roma had not conceded a single goal at home in the Champions League all season. Liverpool, though, chose not to play by the rules once more. Sadio Mané’s strike settles the nerves early on, and it’s Gini Wijnaldum’s first ever away goal since joining the club which ultimately ensures Liverpool emerge victorious over the two legs. You could not write it.

In truth, the final 7-6 scoreline flatters Roma somewhat. There should be no mistaking that they were deservedly beaten by Liverpool, even if they did manage to make things excruciatingly close right at the death. The penalty against James Milner in the first leg is very fortunate, and the one given against Ragnar Klavan is absurd. Milner’s own goal- amusing as it is in retrospect- was another significant slice of luck in Roma’s favour.

They would argue that Alexander-Arnold ought to have been sent off for blocking a certain goal with his hand, which also would have resulted in a penalty. Edin Dzeko was also felled in the box by Karius, only for the linesman to award an incorrect offside decision. Liverpool, though, were denied a stonewall penalty of their own when Mané was barged to the floor in the opening few minutes by Kostas Manolas.

Overall, this tie was not decided by the referee, but by the gap in quality between the two sides, which ultimately saw Liverpool prevail by a smaller margin than ought to have been the case. Critics will point towards Liverpool’s defensive lapses in conceding four goals on the night, but when a side like Roma are playing without any fear and launching everything within their power at goal, chaos can ensue.

Virgil van Dijk emerges from the tie having fully justified his decision to join Liverpool over Man City. He has played a pivotal role in this European campaign and looks worth every penny of the £75 million Liverpool paid to make him the most expensive defender of all time. It doesn’t phase him, at all.

For every single Liverpool player, this was a collective triumph of resilience and determination in a scenario they have never faced before. You could see it when they collapsed to the floor at the final whistle in exhaustion, just how much energy was poured into this endeavour.

And so Kiev is the reward. Real Madrid, a side littered with superstars and a pedigree of delivering in the crucial moments of the very biggest games, lie in wait. The previewing of that fixture can wait for another day. There will be lots of talk between now and then about Klopp’s poor record in the finals, but to lose a final requires reaching a final, and the fact is that Klopp has defied all the odds in reaching this stage for the second time in his five seasons managing in this competition.

Now is not the time to overthink what lies ahead, but to relish the present and take in this spectacular feat in all its resplendent glory thus far.