Liverpool

Liverpool are football's dream makers; Barça should have expected the impossible

 • by Sam McGuire
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Liverpool fans are used to it. They’re used to Anfield hosting special nights, they’re used to witnessing awe-inspiring moments and era-defining matches. These nights, those which supporters often dream about, tend to become reality on Merseyside.

Commentators, occasionally, mention scripts in football. And as those responsible for Game of Thrones season eight have discovered, it’s not always easy to piece one together. 

But against Barcelona, the script was followed to the letter. It was how every single Liverpool supporter had pictured it pre-kickoff. And why wouldn’t it be?

The Reds have seen this movie many times before. They know how to play their part. But, despite this, it was unique.

A remake of an original, if you will, but without the all-star cast. Because while Liverpool have done all of this in the past, the heroes of the pieces have been obvious and available.

Kevin Keegan netted in the 3-1 win over Saint-Étienne. Steven Gerrard did Steve Gerrard things against Olympiakos and AC Milan. He didn’t score the winner but Philippe Coutinho got the Reds back into the game against Borussia Dortmund before Dejan Lovren etched his name into Liverpool folklore in Jürgen Klopp’s first season with the club.

In most of the famous nights at Anfield, Liverpool had their tried and tested heroes to hand. The same couldn’t be said for the visit of the La Liga champions. The Reds were without Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. Naby Keïta, a potential game-changer, was sidelined too.

The Reds had no choice but to field Xherdan Shaqiri, a bit-part player since the turn of the year, and Divock Origi alongside Sadio Mané in attack. The former Lille man has scored vital goals this season but he’s always fared much better off the bench.

But this didn’t deter the supporters. They still believed history could be made.

The bus welcome hinted at this. It wasn’t a token gesture like some initially claimed. The atmosphere in the ground was menacing, with every Barcelona touch booed while every Liverpool attack was roared on as though it was the 90th minute and the Reds needed a goal.

Barcelona didn’t bother to read their script. They didn’t try to quieten down the crowd in those opening minutes. Instead, they allowed the Kop to dictate the tempo. The players feed off it. Klopp feeds off it.

The hustle was underway in the first minute as Jordan Henderson came agonisingly close to scoring after a well-worked move down the Liverpool left. Mane had the beating of Sergi Roberto. The players knew it. The fans knew it. The managers knew it. Yet Ernesto Valverde didn’t react.

Jordan Henderson waltzing past Gerard Pique in the Barcelona box sounds so unrealistic it’s the sort of sequence you see in a Hollywood blockbuster that makes you take to Twitter and claim the film lost all semblance of realism.

But it happened.

The Liverpool skipper burst into the area from deep to pick up Mané’s pass before shimmying onto his left foot and forcing a smart save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Origi was there to pounce on the loose ball and calmly stroke in an empty net.

The running battle between Andrew Robertson and Luis Suárez was one of the highlights of the match. It was a real heel vs face match-up. But when the former Liverpool man brought the left-back’s game to an end at half-time with a sly kick, it felt like Vince McMahon’s Attitude Era had taken over, where heels ruin those fairytale moments.

But Robertson’s misfortune was Gini Wijnaldum’s fortune.

The ex-Newcastle United man replaced the left-back and Klopp shuffled the team around. Often criticised for not showing the goalscoring instinct he shows on international duty, the Liverpool No.5 seemed to relish the opportunity to join the attack.

Trent Alexander-Arnold’s industry down the right was rewarded with an assist in the 54th minute. He regained possession after sloppily losing it and picked out a perfect pass into the area. Wijnaldum’s effort was somewhat tame and straight at ter Stegen but, unlike last week, the German shot-stopper wasn’t able to keep it out.

Just two minutes later the Barcelona stopper was picking the ball out of his net again. Shaqiri, only playing because of injury, found himself free on the left. He floated the ball into the area and Wijnaldum rose highest to direct a header into the top corner.

Squint a little and it’s similar to Gerrard’s goal against AC Milan. And just like in that final, a blitz is what turned the game on its head. Liverpool are known for this, though, especially Klopp’s side. They pick their moments and then land a flurry of blows. But, again, Valverde didn’t read the script. He allowed the chaos.

But then, barring the celebrations that followed, there was nothing chaotic about the fourth goal. It was genius on the part of Alexander-Arnold. His corner caught everyone cold and Origi was there, unmarked in the penalty area, to sweep the ball into the top corner.

The same Alexander-Arnold who sat out the first leg. Who returned for this tie with a point to prove and up against Philippe Coutinho and, arguably the best left-back in the world, Jordi Alba.

Not only did the Liverpool No.66 finish with two assists, he pocketed the Barcelona No.7 and terrorised Alba. It was one of his best performances in red and it came in a Champions League semi-final.

Kids used to say they wanted to be like Gerrard. Now, those who support Liverpool will be saying they want to grow up to be Alexander-Arnold.

We had redemption. We had new heroes emerge. The villains of the piece played their part, too. Not only was Coutinho subbed off, but he also fluffed a fairly big chance with the score at 1-0. On his right foot in the penalty area, his effort was tame and easily saved by Alisson.

Suárez, too, had an opportunity. He usually thrives in this environment, as the pantomime bad guy, but his clinical edge deserted him when in the box and one effort of the match was straightforward for the Liverpool shot-stopper.

Even Lionel Messi, the match-winner in the Camp Nou, failed with his Pied Piper impression. He tried to lead people on a merry dance but struggled to impose himself. It was only the eighth time this season that he’s played an entire 90 minutes and failed to score or assist.

Messi shackled. Coutinho subdued. Suárez frustrated. And this with 33-year-old James Milner playing left-back for 45 minutes.

You can’t stop the inevitable. The Reds are destined to win something under Klopp.

Opposition fans and players have, at times, ridiculed Liverpool for how all in they go on things. But last night epitomised why it happens. Why Liverpool fans believe to the point they seem delusional. Why Anfield has an aura about it that just can’t be replicated. None of it is a myth.

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