Feature photo: Tom Jenkins / The Guardian
Mohammed Salah’s t-shirt was prophetical. “Never Give Up,” it read. Like Liverpool needed somebody to remind them not to. Like they had ever given up in the past. While their injured Egyptian star was forced to watch the game from the bench, his teammates on the pitch wrote another page of a history made of impossible comebacks as they trashed Barcelona to reach the Champions League Final for the second year in a row.
The scorecard at Anfield Road read 4-0 at full time, an outcome that completely overturned what happened at the Camp Nou one week ago. Back at the Blaugrana’s den, Leo Messi had stunned the Reds with a brace of his – featuring a free kick that looked designed with a PlayStation controller – after Luis Suarez had drawn first blood for his side.
With a three-goal advantage, the Catalans could look forward to turning their trip to the Merseyside into a simple formality on the way to their contemptuous goal: Winning a Champions League Final hosted by the hated Madrid – much to Atletico and moreover Real’s scorn.
But they had forgotten something: That Liverpool are a specialist in extreme comebacks (ask Milan in the 2004-05 season for confirmation), and that Barcelona themselves had recently developed an odd tendency to be victim of them (ask last season’s Roma for confirmation).
And so, as Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum each scored a double, Barca managed to achieve the feat of dilapidating a triple lead in the top European competition for the second season straight, reaching a peak of masochism only touched by Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan in the 2004-2005 biennium (and, even back then, Liverpool had played a part in it…)
For coach Ernesto Valverde and his squad, it quickly became clear that the night at Anfield was not going to be a stroll in the park. Despite missing their best strikers Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino, both ruled out by injuries, the home side collected three corner kicks in the first seven minutes, eventually breaching an early gap into Barca’s defense.
Belgian striker Origi was quick to bounce back in the goal a shot by Jordan Henderson saved by Per Ter Stegen, putting Liverpool on the driving seat. Still, the visitors were quick to regain control of the match and, as the Reds’ hard pressing exposed themselves to counterattacks, Philippe Coutinho and Leo Messi forced Liverpool’s goalie Alisson Becker to dirt his gloves to keep his side afloat.
The former Roma goalkeeper was also on the pitch one year ago, when the Giallorossi staged their historical remuntada over the Catalans. The Blaugrana might then be wondering whether their problem actually lies in the Brazilian keeper’s presence, as it would seem that whenever they face Alisson Becker in a Champions League match, things tend to take a pretty bad turn for them.
But more than on Alisson’s saves, Liverpool’s incredible exploit was built on the tactical cleverness of their coach Jurgen Klopp. With the score set to 1-0 and Barcelona still comfortably in control after all, the German trainer found his trump card in midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum. Klopp sent him in after the break, pulling off defender Andrew Robertson, and instantly winning an Oscar for the Best Football Substitution of the Year – if such thing did exist.
Between the 54th and the 56th minute, the Dutch midfielder collected a shocking brace, first with a powerful right-foot shot, and then with a perfectly-timed header that left no chance to Barcelona’s goalie. Wijnaldum’s double, together with Ajax’s exploit, would suggest that maybe this is the golden year for Dutch football in the main European competition.
Liverpool’s fourth goal came in the 79th minute, and it wasn’t what you would call a sensational one. On the contrary, it said much about Barcelona’s state of mind, especially among their confused defenders. Trent Alexander-Arnold fainted to leave Xherdan Shaqiri a corner kick from the right side, then changed his mind and suddenly shot it like he was trying to steal a baseball base. Divock Origi was once again ready in the box to put the ball past Per Ter Stegen, who was still positioning his defense and didn’t even see it coming.
Barcelona had 11 minutes left to find an exit way from the nightmare, but with the ghost of the Stadio Olimpico’s infamous night materializing again, Valverde’s band showed they didn’t have it anymore – nor did Malcom Felipe’s late entrance change anything. Leo Messi left the pitch shaking his head at full time, like he couldn’t believe this was happening again.
But yes, it was really happening. Liverpool pulled it out once again. And listening to the whole Anfield Road singing You Will Never Walk Alone, as Jurgen Klopp and his immortal gang gathered at midfield to receive a post-match ovation, was a final show worth itself the price of the ticket.
May 7, 2019 – UEFA Champions League 2018-19 Semifinals
LIVERPOOL-BARCELONA 4-0 (Liverpool advance 4-3 on aggregate)
SCORERS: 7′ Origi, 54′ Wijnaldum, 56′ Wijnaldum, 79′ Origi
|LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander Arnold, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson (46′ Wijnaldum); Fabinho, Milner, Henderson; Shaqiri (90′ Sturridge), Origi (86′ Gomez), Mané (Brewster, Lovren, Randall, Woodburn) Coach: Klopp|
|BARCELONA (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Sergi Roberto, Piqué, Lenglet, Jordi Alba; Vidal (74′ Arthur), Busquets, Rakitic (80′ Malcom); Messi, Suarez, Coutinho (60′ Semedo) (Cillessen, Alena, Umtiti, Vermaelen) Coach: Valverde|
REFEREE: Cakir (Turkey)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Fabinho, Matip (L), Busquets, Semedo (B)