Liverpool embrace chaos to complete astonishing comeback
“Fail in the most beautiful way,” Jurgen Klopp told his players, in what may be remembered as football management’s most effective piece of reverse psychology. Liverpool would not fail beautifully. It would be mad, bad, brilliant, tempestuous – ugly, sometimes – but they would succeed.
The first came early enough – with Divock Origi pouncing on Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s parry – and a frantic quarter-of-an-hour followed. It was the type of frenzied 15 minutes which did for Manchester City and Roma last year. Barcelona survived them.
And when a tiring home side went back down the tunnel at half time, Ernesto Valverde’s side seemed to have seen off the worst. Without Mohamed Salah to break in behind, without Roberto Firmino linking the play, Liverpool would not come again. Would they?
That was the logical conclusion at the break but under Klopp, Liverpool defy logic. Liverpool are chaos. What other word could describe the two-minute period when substitute Georginio Wijnaldum eradicated Barcelona’s first-leg lead, one goal immediately following the other
How else do summarise the quick Trent Alexander-Arnold corner that allowed that caught out Barcelona’s defence, allowing Origi to score the goal which takes them back to the Champions League final for the second consecutive season? This team, once again, defies belief.
Origi the hero once more
It was not supposed to be this close without Salah and Firmino to help make up the ground lost at the Nou Camp. “Two of the world’s best strikers are not available,” Klopp conceded on Monday.
But in their place came someone who was close to leaving the club last summer. Instead, he is now close to being remembered as one of the best big-game, big-moment players in its history.
Where would Liverpool be without Origi’s goals over the past few days? The answer is quite simple: without a hope in the Premier League title race and out of the Champions League. Their season would be over.
It would be wrong to boil this night down to one player. This, as ever with Klopp, was a triumph of a system. But you need someone to take the chances that system creates, to be alive on the quick corner.
Against all expectation, Origi has been that man.
Liverpool make it scrappy
What is it about scrawny Scottish full-backs that so annoys the best players in the world? Last year’s Champions League had Neymar refusing to shake hands with Celtic’s Anthony Ralston after the defender had grinned manically in the face.
Now, we have Andrew Robertson shoving Lionel Messi in the back of the head with both palms as early as the second minute. It was a new take on the old concept of a ‘reducer’ but it did the job, setting the tone for an ill-tempered evening.
Robertson was not the only one. There was Fabinho stealing the dead ball away from Luis Suarez on a Barcelona corner, not long before a forceful challenge on the Uruguayan earned him a yellow card.
Even James Milner was falling theatrically and staying down on the ground after one robust aerial challenge. Liverpool, clearly, wanted to upset and disrupt their opponents. They wanted a dogfight. They got one.
Anfield turns on Suarez
The thing with dogfights, though, is that you need the bigger dog. Suarez gives no quarter to any opponent. That much, to anybody who witnessed his three-and-a-half years as a Liverpool player should know that. Anybody who watched the first leg should too.
It was no surprise then when the Uruguayan got took retributive action on Robertson, presumably on Messi’s behalf. A sly kick to ankle off-the-ball, once the Liverpool full-back was already hobbling, helped end Robertson’s night early.
As chants of “cheat, cheat, cheat” and “f*** off Suarez” rang out, some cried hypocrisy on social media. They were right, but that misses the point. Anfield, after all, is not so different from Suarez himself.
It is a ground which often welcomes its former players back with open arms but not when the stakes are as a high as a place in a European Cup final. Suarez and Liverpool worked as a match because the two parties cared equally about one thing: winning.
Barcelona haunted by ghosts of Rome
And while you expect Suarez to engage in such tactics and succumb to the fraught energy of the occasion, Barcelona are supposed to be much more composed than this. They are meant to kill games. Nip counter-attacks and comebacks in the bud.
Granted, Ernesto Valverde’s side are not as possession-heavy as their predecessors but within this team, there are still players who remember how to retain and recycle the ball, slowly frustrating their opponents.
Sometimes that works, sometimes it does not. What was strange was that Barcelona did not even try. Instead they engaged with Liverpool, going toe-to-toe, searching for the away goal that could, in the eyes of many, decide this tie.
Was that a side-effect of their defeat in Rome last year? Messi, certainly, did not seem to think this tie was over when Ousmane Dembele missed that late chance in the first leg.
Valverde has done remarkably well since taking over at the Nou Camp. His work has gone somewhat underappreciated. But – as with the Stadio Olimpico last year – it is this defeat on which their season will be judged.
They have fallen short once more.