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.