Saturday 24 February 2018

Special night at Anfield showed this isn't only a season of miracles, but a truly joyful one too

Jurgen Klopp: Messianic qualities Observer. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters
Jurgen Klopp: Messianic qualities Observer. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters

Paul Wilson

Football supporters are tribal creatures at heart, and remarkable as it may seem, there were a few who professed not to enjoy Liverpool's stupendous comeback against Borussia Dortmund on Thursday, the latest and arguably greatest drama yet in the long-running series of sublime-going-on-surreal European nights at Anfield.

Messages appeared on social networks almost straight away, quite possibly from people with Manchester postcodes or Goodison Park season tickets, complaining that the way the media were (over)reacting, anyone would think Liverpool had won the Champions League.

Which is a fair point, as it happens. The oft-derided Europa League is only for nearly teams, after all, a sort of consolation prize for clubs who fail to make the cut for the main event and can be bothered putting their domestic success at risk to undertake arduous trips to some of the continent's less glamorous outposts. On the other hand, what sort of a football fan do you have to be to take such a sensibly-detached view of an orgy of skill, goals, noise and passion that will still be talked about 50 years from now?

That might seem like more overkill, but the Saint-Etienne game was 39 years ago, folks, and still seems like yesterday to anyone whose mind was boggled by the spectacle. Surely only the bitterest Blue or most mean-spirited Manc could deny that Liverpool have something special going on on these occasions.

To listen to a deflated, disappointed and frankly bemused Thomas Tuchel after the game, indicating that it was hard to explain such an illogical sequence of events and practically accusing the crowd of willing things to happen as if the pitch was some sort of giant ouija board, was almost to accept that fate had intervened to deny an extremely able German side. "The stadium seemed to know what would happen," the Dortmund coach said. That much was true. It did, or at least it seemed that way. "It was as if it was meant to be."

That, of course, is harder to substantiate, though what appears to be true is that Liverpool's ability to come back from the dead is now a self-fulfilling prophecy, like Manchester United's old knack of scoring goals in the closing minutes. Dortmund's only mistake was not to put a stake through the heart of the vampire when it was still relatively comatose in the first half. By the time it was stirring after the interval, it was too late.

Leaving aside the supernatural motif for the moment, what used to happen with United was that their penchant for late winners would play on their opponents' minds, or at least be in their opponents' minds, so when that period of the game arrived, they would subconsciously or otherwise alter their approach. Something similar occurred at Anfield. Liverpool did not give up, and though Dortmund responded well to their first goal and seemed to have the result secure at 3-1, they shrivelled when Philippe Coutinho's shot went in with 24 minutes remaining and lost faith in the game plan that had brought them such early reward. "We stopped trusting ourselves," was how Tuchel put it. "We had hurt Liverpool with our attacking play, but in the last quarter of the game, we were focused only on defending."

Perhaps a drawback to the high-energy pressing game Jurgen Klopp has instilled at these clubs is that it is a difficult style to keep up for 90 minutes. Had Dortmund continued in the same vein throughout, they might have ended up with four or five goals, they really looked that good in the first half. But it is only natural, and probably wise, for a team that has taken an early lead to try to protect it and conserve energy at the same time.

Klopp undoubtedly has some experience of this from his own time at Dortmund, never mind the example he cited at half-time of Liverpool sowing seeds of doubt in Milan's mind in Istanbul. The Liverpool manager perhaps had a shrewd idea that if his side could get on to the scoresheet and then keep pushing, it would introduce an element of conflict into opponents who, like Milan in 2005, had things so much their own way in the first half, there was almost nothing to think about.

Crucially, Liverpool did not take on Dortmund at their own game. They did not befuddle defenders with speed of thought or movement, they just kept getting the ball forward at every opportunity, relentlessly putting the heart of the German defence under pressure. Perhaps this was what Tuchel found illogical. That and the fact that his sensationally mobile and quick-witted team were ultimately undone by two goals from Liverpool's centre-halves.

But he was right about the crowd and the atmosphere. There is a chemistry at Anfield, if Leighton Baines does not object to the use of the word, that is simply not replicated anywhere else in England and probably in few places in the world.

There has long been a quote from Johan Cruyff picked out in huge letters on a wall at the Melwood training ground, where he marvels at the symbiosis between crowd and team at Liverpool and suggests no other club can summon the same feeling and fervour to make its players stand tall. "There's not one club in the world so united with the fans," it runs. "I sat there watching a mass of 40,000 people [in Istanbul in 2005] become one force behind their team. They sent shivers down my spine."

One could not only feel that at the game on Thursday, it must have been possible to pick it up from watching on television, just as with Saint-Etienne in the 1977 European Cup quarter-final. To prevent Everton and Manchester United supporters reaching for the sick bag at this point, it is only fair to add that the Anfield effect is not a regular occurrence, or even a common one. There have been plenty of quiet games and flat atmospheres at Liverpool in the recent past, not to mention occasions when the crowd has outperformed the team.

Yet there seems little point in denying that when Anfield gets it right, the results are spectacular, and any murmurs of discontent can be put down to envious rivals secretly wishing such earth-shaking events would take place once in a while at their own club. Despite more than a passing resemblance to a red-and-white religion, with iconic images of previous managers given pride of place on the Kop and Klopp all too obviously chosen for his messianic qualities as a leader, the only genuine mystery surrounding what Liverpool do so well is how they keep doing it across the generations.

Teams fight back from two- or three-goal deficits every week, it is not that unusual, though such recoveries are not generally accompanied by figures such as Cruyff or Tuchel suggesting that the crowd knew the script in advance or helped bring about the desired result.

The latter is no stranger to big, passionate crowds either. Dortmund play to 80,000 fans a week, which ought to make the Westfalenstadion roughly twice as intimidating as Anfield, but evidently it lags behind when it comes to the miraculous or magical. Talking of which, Liverpool have now been installed as favourites for the Europa League after being drawn with Villarreal in the semi-final. The odds are quite short, but Manchester City are available at around 7/1 to see off Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final and then teach Pep Guardiola a lesson in the final, if Atletico Madrid have not already done that first.

It is not going to happen, is it? In fact, put like that, City's odds ought to be in double figures at least. But Liverpool getting past Dortmund did not look like it was going to happen at around 9.30pm on Thursday. Leicester winning the league did not seem remotely likely either when bookmakers made them available at 5,000/1 back in the summer. This is turning out to be not only a season of miracles, but a particularly joyful one. What more reason could there be for a flutter on a hugely improbable English double in Europe?


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