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Liverpool produce second miracle on one of the all-time great European nights

The Reds came back from a 3-0 deficit to shock Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals.

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (left), Jordan Henderson (centre) and Daniel Sturridge (right) celebrate after the final whistle.
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (left), Jordan Henderson (centre) and Daniel Sturridge (right) celebrate after the final whistle.

THE LATTER STAGES of the Champions League are all about ‘big-match experience’ and which team has the most, or so conventional wisdom would have you believe.

Yet during Liverpool’s remarkable comeback against Barcelona last night, it was a 20-year-old who created arguably the tie’s definitive moment.

It was an occasion that rivalled ‘The Miracle of Istanbul’ for sheer improbability and endless thrills. Speaking on Virgin Media, club legend Graeme Souness called it Liverpool’s greatest night at Anfield.

Barca’s team was full of serial winners — world champions like Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, or Lionel Messi, who has claimed virtually everything there is to win at club level.

But Trent Alexander-Arnold, who exited his teens in October and only became a first-team regular last season, eclipsed them all. At a pivotal point in the match, the full-back had the wit to take a quick corner and the talent to execute it immaculately. The youngster was cool and calculated, whereas Barcelona’s seasoned pros demonstrated extreme naivety in turning their back on the ball and losing all concentration during this match-altering incident, haplessly watching on as Divock Origi sent Anfield into raptures.

It was an illogical moment, which epitomised a game that frequently defied belief. Quite how Liverpool so improbably managed to turn the tie around is difficult to rationalise.

Fate appeared to be against the Reds. They were without two of the best attackers in Europe, in Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino. At half-time, with the tie finely balanced at 1-0, they lost another key player — Andy Robertson.

The previous night, they had witnessed the demoralising spectacle of their rivals Man City putting one hand on the Premier League title with a hard-fought victory over Leicester. 

They seemed destined to be remembered as the best team never to win the Premier League — only three sides in the competition’s history have amassed more than the 94 points (and counting) that they have accumulated in this campaign.

And last Saturday, as they laboured to a nerve-ridden 3-2 win away to Newcastle, Barcelona, with the La Liga title already secured, had the luxury of resting 11 players for their essentially meaningless fixture with Celta Vigo.

Going into Tuesday night’s encounter, few people gave the Reds a prayer. They were 3-0 down against a side featuring arguably the greatest player in history. Even if they were to score three goals, Jurgen Klopp’s men would likely need at least five, given that they were up against a team who had scored 86 goals in 36 domestic matches and needed just one more to silence the home fans and seemingly put victory beyond doubt.

Somehow though, it all came together for Jurgen Klopp.

The Reds should have been the team who looked tired. They had just emerged from the exhausting domestic encounter and were still involved in the title race.

Yet there was a nonchalance about the Catalan side that perhaps comes with domestic dominance and a 3-0 first-leg advantage. Liverpool, by contrast, have had few opportunities to let up this season, and that edge was evident at Anfield on Tuesday. The increasingly fragile-looking visitors consistently struggled to cope with their opponents’ intensity and physicality, as well as the momentum inevitably inspired by a morale-boosting early goal.

If you were to look at the two starting XIs on paper, most people would come to the conclusion that Barcelona possess the better players. The majority of Barca’s team are accustomed to winning major trophies. By contrast, from Liverpool’s starting XI last night, only three players have won titles in one of Europe’s big five leagues: James Milner, Xherdan Shaqiri and Fabinho, and of that trio, only the ex-Monaco man could be considered an absolutely key player in his side’s 2017 title triumph.

The vast majority of the time, football is a simple game in the sense that the team with the best players and most money wins the contest. Yet occasionally, other factors come into play.

The inspirational Anfield crowd helped spur their team on, while whereas Barca’s seasoned winners had played in so many other huge games throughout their career, Liverpool’s underdogs had something to prove.

Alisson was part of the Roma side who came agonisingly close to glory in the Champions League last season. Joel Matip has had to fight for his place in the team, with Joe Gomez initially preferred at centre-back. Trent Alexander-Arnold was dropped for the first leg at the Camp Nou. Three years ago, Andy Robertson was playing in the Championship and two years ago, he was getting relegated with Hull. When Liverpool paid £75 million for Virgil van Dijk last year, some critics suggested he wasn’t worth that amount. Jordan Henderson is often accused of lacking creativity and has only recently been re-born as a more attack-minded midfielder. James Milner’s days in the starting XI looked numbered when Jurgen Klopp brought in two big-money midfielders in the summer. After a slow start to this season, there were suggestions that Liverpool had wasted the initial £39 million they spent on Fabinho. Xherdan Shaqiri was called a “disgrace” and “unprofessional” for his performances with Stoke last season. Divock Origi is clearly considered second string at Liverpool and has never hit double figures in a league campaign, struggling to set the world alight in Ligue 1 only four years ago. Sadio Mane at 27 is now only truly being recognised as world-class, having gone somewhat under the radar to varying degrees at Metz, Red Bull Salzburg and Southampton. And of course, two-goal hero Georginio Wijnaldum was angry at Klopp for leaving him out at the start.

Compare these Liverpool stars to Messi, Busquets, Pique, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez among others — players who have seldom been doubted and who have tasted so much success, won virtually all they can in the game and ostensibly do not have much left to prove.

Repeated triumphs can cause teams to slip into comfort zones, and even the most ardent Barcelona fan would struggle to defend their team against this allegation on the evidence of last night.

For the second successive year, the La Liga outfit let a three-goal first-leg lead slip in a Champions League knockout fixture. Eight of those who began the game at Anfield were also on the field from the outset during the Roma debacle, while another 2018 starter, Nélson Semedo, was introduced off the bench. And at times last night, some of their stars played as if they were entitled to a victory, or at least the kind of scintillating Messi magic that got them out of jail in the first leg.

In contrast, what’s special about this Liverpool team is not their talent — that quality is taken for granted at the highest level. It is the selflessness of every player from one to 11 — the lack of ego permeating the squad that ensures everyone will run themselves into the ground for a common cause.

Jurgen Klopp, too, deserves immense credit for fostering that attitude and recruiting the right players to implement it. Rarely, if ever, have a Barcelona side looked so perplexed, having been outrun and tactically out-thought for the majority of the 90 minutes.

And usually, applauding a team’s heart and spirit is akin to damning them with faint praise. These characteristics are invariably associated with inferior sides marred by inadequate technical ability. With Liverpool though, they serve to complement the players’ undeniable alternative qualities and ultimately help produce miraculous results.

It’s been a compelling season for the Anfield faithful and last night felt like a fitting climax to an exhilarating campaign. Such fabulous memories may never again be topped at the great old stadium that is, of course, unless Brighton can pull off something similarly spectacular on Sunday. 

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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