It’s that time of year again, when the last few Champions League hopefuls battle it out for the right to join the biggest teams in Europe. A win over two legs, and these hopefuls enter the Champions League proper. It’s crazy to think about, but two years ago, Liverpool were in a big fight to return to the promised land.
The Reds had qualified for the Champions League, but with one, big asterisk: they needed to get through Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. It was an unlucky draw to say the least. While the biggest leagues—including both the Premier League and Bundesliga—have since conspired to avoid this stage altogether, it was possible (though rare) that sides from the Big 4 leagues met at this stage.
Of course Liverpool, in the last year that an English team would have to go through the playoff, would do it the hard way.
It was a nervy opening 35 minutes for Liverpool. Hoffenheim were awarded an early penalty, only for the much-derided Simon Mignolet to step up and save it. And while Liverpool looked dangerous on the counter (a trick they would repeat often throughout the subsequent rounds of the competition), they ceded over 60% of the possession to the home side.
And then it happened: a moment of pure brilliance, and perhaps a sliding-doors moment for both the player and club alike. Sadio Mane won a free kick in a promising position, and who steps up to take it? Henderson? Salah? A mad Albi Moreno shout? No. No. No. How about 18-year-old fullback, deputizing for the injured Nathaniel Clyne, Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Many supporters were surprised to see the young academy player place the ball and stand over it. Any doubts over his abilities would be short lived. In a flash the ball was over the wall, and curled into the bottom corner. It was a stunning free kick, one that left the goalkeeper rooted to his spot, helplessly watching as the ball zipped past.
Liverpool went on to win the first leg 2-1, courtesy of a James Milner deflected shot turned in for an own goal.
It set Liverpool up for a big home performance back at Anfield, and boy did they deliver. The Reds might have rode their luck in the first leg, but they were spectacular in the second. Liverpool were 3-0 up after 21 minutes, and then cruised to a 4-2 win (6-3 on aggregate).
Klopp’s Liverpool, of course, would go on to top the group, and play their way to the final. And then play their way to another final after that—this time winning it.
Even without Trent’s wonder goal, we were probably too much for Hoffenheim. But it was a massive moment for a young, inexperienced player, playing on a largely young, inexperienced side (at least as far as the Champions League goes). And it was a moment when the team needed it the most.
It has been a wild two years since that playoff round. Trent Alexander-Arnold became the youngest player ever to start two Champions League Finals. Our fortunes, and his, began with that goal.