Sunday 25 August 2019

Simon Hughes: 'This had been a proper Liverpool night, defiant and raucous'

Anfield rallied Jurgen Klopp’s side to stun the Spanish champions with Divock Origi’s double taking them through to the final in Madrid

Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker (left), Georginio Wijnaldum (centre) and Joe Gomez celebrates after the UEFA Champions League Semi Final victory over Barcelona. Photo credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire.
Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker (left), Georginio Wijnaldum (centre) and Joe Gomez celebrates after the UEFA Champions League Semi Final victory over Barcelona. Photo credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire.

Simon Hughes

Welcome to Liverpool, Lionel.

This is a story which involves a journalist from Catalonia who booked an ‘apartment’ in Kensington only to find out it did not exist. It also involves truth, probability and falsehood. The truth: the release of fireworks as Barcelona’s squad slept on the highest floors of the Hilton Hotel. The probability: it did not disturb them for too long. The falsehood: rumours of their team bus being taken on a ride around the northern sink estates of Merseyside. It actually did arrive at Anfield with the designated driver at the wheel but it was amidst a storm of red smoke and the whiff of cordite. He surely could not really have seen where he was going as he approached a stadium which later would rock to its ancient foundations. Barcelona’s players, indeed, may have wished they never came at all.

The real angst, though, begins in the tunnel of the Camp Nou six days earlier. It was a shame that Andy Robertson was not on the pitch for the second half when the drama really unfolded here because he had set a belligerent tone which carried through the mood of his team, clipping the world’s greatest player around back of the head when no one was looking having already dumped him on the floor in the opening minutes of the game.

Both he and Luis Suarez had spent the first leg shoving and kicking each other. They had pulled, dragged and scratched, slid and tackled. When the cameras were not there – or when Suarez knew they were out of sight as the pathway to the dressing rooms forked in different directions – Suarez went for Robertson but Robertson went back at Suarez. Robertson made a comment about Suarez’s weight, a fat so-and-so apparently. The Scot was ready to go full Begbie on him when staff intervened.

Though Liverpool ultimately lost, the confrontation fired his focus and belief. He was Liverpool’s outstanding player against the world’s outstanding team and he did not deserve to suffer the collective outcome. If Barcelona ever want to replace Jordi Alba, they should know where to look.

Robertson was not around now but with eleven minutes to go, Messi had been reduced to a sloth-like creature, stood with his shoulders slouched and his hands on his hips. The cameras fluttered between Barcelona’s players, searching for reactions. They showed Sergio Busquets looking up at the clouds. Maybe he was thinking about that Ousmane Dembele miss last week which would have taken Barcelona’s lead into the second leg to four. They showed Suarez on his buttocks and picking his nose. He stared awkwardly into the middle distance as he tried to rationalise a traumatic experience which reduces his legend on Merseyside.

He had earlier fallen easily and having demanded further reprimand for Virgil van Dijk, the Kop launched into him, seeing a cheat. Half an hour later, Liverpool were three-nil up. It would become four: the total Barcelona did not reach because of Dembele, who had since injured himself and was unavailable for the challenge of Anfield. Suarez would leave the pitch at the end as quickly as possible, passing Daniel Sturridge, the Liverpool substitute and his former teammate. It is fair to say Sturridge and Suarez did not see eye to eye when together they led Liverpool’s attack so effectively. Sturridge enjoyed this moment, letting out massive provocative roar which Suarez managed to ignore. He had wanted to leave Liverpool in the summers of 2013 as well as 2014 when he finally got his wish. He able to get away now and again, he could not disappear quickly enough. He claimed he would not celebrate if he scored against Liverpool at Anfield. And he did not.

For forty-two years, Liverpool’s victory over Saint Etienne has been recognised as their most special in Europe, eclipsing what happened in Istanbul because of the attached emotion and what it meant. There was the extraordinary manner of the win but there was also the club’s first European Cup to celebrate at the end of it. Without any of the context around consequences, this was surely more incredible, more inspiring to anyone watching regardless of partisanship. This was a half a Liverpool team turning over the Spanish champions having trailed by three goals. It did not have the availability of four players from the start of the game and it was five by the end, including Liverpool’s left back.

Suarez has always been the sort of opponent who is able to ensure that only the deceased knows he has been done. As soon as Robertson went down towards half time after the Uruguayan’s studs raked against his calf, there was a sense of alarm. Robertson’s evening was over. Yet Liverpool’s was not.

Jurgen Klopp later looked drained in the press room. He had partied with his players in front of the Kop as You’ll Never Walk Alone was transmitted across the public-address system, followed by John Lennon’s Imagine. He had asked the squad in the morning whether any of them wanted to speak about Manchester City’s victory over Leicester to try and wash any bad feeling away. Nobody talked. And then Klopp told them, “This is possible because it’s you; it might be possible – you are giants.”

He would swear on TV because he knew it was ten past ten and past the watershed. “I feel,” he said, “f-----g brilliant.” His bedraggle was a reflection of his love for a sport, similar to when Borussia Dortmund defeated Malaga in improbable circumstances all those years ago. Klopp had remembered another experience with Dortmund where he was asked in the Bernabeu whether the tie was finished having fallen three goals behind in a first leg. “How could they pay me one Euro more if I said yes?” he fired back. Mohamed Salah, who joined in the celebrations, wore a t-shirt which read in capital letters: “NEVER GIVE UP.” Klopp and Liverpool did not. A message for everyone, whatever you are hoping to achieve in spite of the odds.

Despite the sneak of Barcelona and the will of Liverpool, it was ultimately the latter’s imagination which defined the outcome. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner for Divock Origi’s winner surprised everyone, including the writer of this article who was making notes in the press box when the ball struck the back of the net.

There may now be a corner called, “The Trent”, which describes the taker either faking a cross before going ahead with it or taking it early when he sees an window of opportunity even though he might end up looking daft. Not that Klopp would have minded. He encourages spontaneity. He devours it. Alexander-Arnold is 20-years-old but he is now playing the game like he’s in his prime. His earlier assist for Georginio Wijnaldum was just as spectacular and just as clever. He had crunched Alba to win the ball in the first instance, just as van Dijk had swooped in on Messi before Liverpool’s winner.

All of Liverpool’s players were like bloodhounds, none of them performing below eight out of 10 apart from Xherdan Shaqiri who in many ways embodied Liverpool’s spirit and resilience. Following a dire first half, he supplied Wijnaldum’s second goal and after the break emerged as a productive pest.

Joel Matip was like a maestro, reading passes and starting off moves from the back. Fabinho gave an incredible midfield performance, winning so many tackles even after earning an early booking. Jordan Henderson’s energy was endless, even though he was carrying a knock to his knee for the best part of an hour. James Milner pounded into Messi as well early on and then played as and like a left back once Robertson went off. Such was the force of Liverpool’s punishment, for a good hour or so Barcelona were made to feel like they were hanging on in the last minute. Liverpool’s relentlessness was outrageous considering what had happened at Newcastle just three days earlier.

The first half had delivered everything you could want from a football match. It was played at break-neck speed with skill and aggression. There were incidents, subplots and as much drama off the ball as there was on it. There was a game within a game, with things happening away from the eyes of the officials, which cranked up the level of antipathy inside the stadium to a brimming level. Anfield raged. It felt more like Goodison Park. Some seventy-five year olds on the terraces wanted it more than some of Barcelona’s players – one of them Philippe Coutinho, who struggled again and was the first to be substituted for his team.

The opening 20 minutes alone felt like a match in itself. Liverpool roared into Barcelona, battering their defence. Their lead at the break was by one but it could have been by two. Was Sadio Mane fouled when the Turkish referee chose not to give a penalty? Sergi Roberto’s knee certainly connected with his thigh.

Barcelona, though, were just as menacing. Ivan Rakitic was initially majestic in midfield, he never seems to miss a pass. As Liverpool streamed forward, the Croatian exploited gaps. Alisson Becker made three excellent saves, one from Philippe Coutinho, another from Messi and then from Jordi Alba. It was breathless, confident stuff from both sides. Liverpool were so hostile, they were horrible. Yet that did not mean they were reckless. Fabinho received a yellow card for a tremendous challenge on Suarez. The Brazilian was pumped. Suarez, meanwhile, was as provocative as he was last week – or as he always has been. Anfield instructed him to “f--k off” and after that, he offered very little threat, fading into the background of the wider narrative.

Liverpool were roughly where they wanted to be at the half way stage. Two-nil, Wijnaldum. Three-nil, Wijnaldum. The substitute for Robertson had scored twice in ten minutes which had involved just four other touches. Then came “The Trent.”

He and Henderson were the last to depart the pitch. Henderson sang Allez Allez Allez loudly as he jumped between interviews, veins bulging from his reddened face. In other eras, he’d be considered one of the most decorated Liverpool midfielders but having narrowly missed out on winning everything there is to win, he is viewed slightly differently. A month from now, that could all have changed.

Alexander-Arnold, meanwhile, completed a lap of the pitch and Barcelona’s fans applauded him. He will now play in his second Champions League final in as many seasons. The Liverpool coaches at the academy had always liked him because of the devilment in his character and the vision in his play. “A proper Liverpool lad,” Steve Heighway thought of him not so long ago. This had been a proper Liverpool night, defiant and raucous. It was right that he should take the final applause and leave the stage last.

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