Last Night in Liverpool
In their astonishing 4-0 victory over Barcelona, Jürgen Klopp’s players produced a performance for the pantheon.
There was a moment right at the end here – amid the roiling, rhapsodic noise of a stadium that had suddenly found itself hauled before the eyes of a disbelieving world – when everyone knew at last that things would be OK.
As James Milner taxied the ball towards the corner flag in the 94th minute, it was tempting to wonder if his entire career hadn't been building towards these few, gloriously wasted seconds, if there is any human currently alive better equipped to carry out the task at hand. The tankard-jawed stalwart seems to have spent his whole life being obdurate near touchlines, rattling into challenges, ratting out stray passes, deciding in which direction the ball should be travelling and straining every sinew to ensure that it proceeds in a manner he deems fit.
There was a danger that Milner would end up the unknown soldier of an occasion that provoked staggering levels of fearlessness from every one of his teammates in the Liverpool starting 11, as well as the crucial half-time substitute Gini Wijnaldum. Ultimately, though, Milner wrote himself indelibly into the story of this wild night with his own tears, tears that poured from his face in the celebrations out on the pitch in the pandemonium that greeted the greatest comeback in Champions League semi-final history, and perhaps the greatest night ever witnessed by those storied Anfield lights.
Milner is not known for displays of emotion. In fact, an entire mini-industry has built up around the idea of him as English football’s last great stoic, a walking Stone Henge slab who eschews champagne for Ribena and possesses all the raw charisma of a talking alarm clock. But here he was: headfirst in the moment, overcome with joy and relief, sobbing those tankard tears out of his big tankard head in front of a rapt global audience of millions.
It was where he was minutes before that, though, that really mattered – that place being, as ever, exactly where Liverpool needed him to be, a central midfielder repurposed as a left-back hunched paternally over the ball, eyes gazing down at that familiar white paint as the roar rose up around him and his long-suffering achilles tendons absorbed the usual flurry of kicks from opponents enraged by his stubbornness, taking the pain in order to soothe the nerves of others.
It wasn't sacrifice alone that got Liverpool this far, although that’s a big part of it. Liverpool and their manager Jürgen Klopp knew that sacrifice alone would never be enough, as hundreds of vanquished opponents of Lionel Messi’s various Barcelona sides would testify. While Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip and Fabinho joined Milner in setting the tone for a performance of breathtaking resolve, it was the ability of Liverpool’s attacking protagonists to garland that with guile and poise that sent them soaring over what had seemed at the outset the most insurmountable of hurdles.
Trailing by three goals to the most vaunted club in living memory, one built to serve the greatest player the game has ever seen, Wijnaldum, Sadio Mané, Divock Origi and Trent Alexander-Arnold all produced moments of berserker perspicacity to hack deadly chunks out of Barcelona’s first-leg lead, the fourth and final goal in particular a work of such shocking clarity that it felt in real-time like a collective hallucination. Alexander-Arnold, a right-back who will end his second full season as one of the world’s very best in his position, won a corner by deliberately playing the ball out off the legs of Sergi Roberto. As Barcelona’s beleaguered players took the liberty of respite, turning away from the ball to await the arrival of Van Dijk and the rest of the big men they assumed they’d be marking, a spare was produced by a ballboy down by the corner flag beneath the Kop.
Even Alexander-Arnold took a few strides away before the lightning bolt hit; Origi was unmarked in the box and every opponent near him had switched off. The right-back raced back to the ball and swept it with pinpoint accuracy and spin into Origi’s path. Before the Catalan side’s defenders or anyone else knew what was going on, the ballboy’s spare ball was in the Barcelona net, and the roar of the home crowd was not a roar at all but something altogether less credulous and higher pitched, a synergistic shriek, a rare outburst of hysteria that seemed to emerge from some other place to engulf Anfield. It is hard to recall ever witnessing a moment of such cheek and ingenuity from a young English footballer operating at the very highest level of the game.
It was the perfect way for Klopp’s charges to launch themselves, for the first time, into the lead in this tie, a moment of deadly calm fuelled by the kind of rarified oxygen that Liverpool’s players seemed to possess sole rights to for the duration of the 95 minutes. Alexander-Arnold was relentless up and down that right wing, as were Milner and Andy Robertson over on the left either side of the latter’s departure through injury at the interval. Throughout, there was a sense of gathering momentum, of chaos being harnessed and wielded by this Liverpool team, that was utterly infectious and proved too much for Barcelona’s vexed technicians.
The first half hour in particular passed in an impressionist whirl of high-tempo, state-of-the-art mob irritation; Liverpool sought to turn the game into a ferociously contested drop-ball that lasted 90 minutes, a never-ending succession of gilt-edged 50-50s, every one of which Klopp had drilled his team to compete for with their lives. That they were able to do so at the end of a long, hard slog of a season that found its latest apotheosis in this weekend’s last-minute victory over Newcastle is remarkable. That they were able to do so after a Monday night that saw Vincent Kompany lash in a freak 35-yarder to severely dent their title chances is mad. That they were able to do so against Barcelona – arch proponents of possession-heavy carousel football – without star forwards Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino is enough to grant this squad and this night access to the pantheon.
In the event, a makeshift XI comprised of players signed from Southampton, Sunderland, Newcastle, Hull and Stoke City channelled relentless Premier League energy to humiliate mighty Barca, like some bloke who works in CeX necking a six-pack of Monster and a KFC family bucket before outmanoeuvring a chess-playing supercomputer.
Every detail of the win will live long in the memory of those who saw it; it’s a game that will be honoured over and over by fanatic lore, invariably committed to timelessness as it’s passed down through the generations. (No doubt that quick-thinking ballboy will find himself hailed as a future Liverpool captain in the giddy local press by this afternoon.)
More memorable than any detail, though, was the impression of some wider and indefinable ambience that comes to settle on football stadia on rare evenings such as this one, an atmosphere of such vivid and all-consuming unity that it's as though everyone present is inhaling and expelling the night air through the same cavernous mouth, breathing in the floodlights through the same wet eyes, physical limits dissolving in a euphoric cloud of dumb belief, inconceivable redemption and the ever-glimmering promise of glories yet to come.