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Liverpool, Ajax, and the Joy of the Upset

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For a long time Liverpool were underdogs, but that’s no longer the case. How will the Reds respond with the shoe on the other foot?

Juventus v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

I’m traveling this week, leaving the relatively safe confines of Danish farmer country for the more rough and tumble former Soviet Bloc—specifically Riga, Latvia.

Of course, there is still football to be watched, and Champions League knock-out football at that. So I found myself (along with my wife and in-laws) in a large Irish pub on Tuesday, watching Barcelona defenestrate Manchester United on one screen while a truly inspired and unlikely result unfolded between Juventus and Ajax on the other.

It’s fair to say that by the second half, most of the attention had turned to the Juve-Ajax match.

Ronaldo hatred aside, I really don’t have strong feelings for Juventus. Nor do I have strong feelings for Ajax. I mean, I like Ajax, but in that vague “former European giant with loads of history that still produces loads of talent but can never keep it together for long enough to do anything” sort of way. So, in a way very specific to Ajax, I guess I’m saying.

And I wasn’t alone. Aside from one besides-himself-in-pain-and-agony Juve fan, the entire pub was cheering on Ajax. When the winning goal went in, the place erupted in cheers (or, for the one exception, tears).

There is a romanticism about an upset in sports. Especially when that upset is paired with a formerly great side (or player, as we recently saw with Tiger Woods) returning to the perch they’ve been knocked off of many years or even decades ago.

Life is full of the rich and powerful winning, winning, and winning some more. There are no refs to call fouls (or, if there are, they don’t call the game fairly in most cases). The little guy is continually crushed, and we feel powerless to stop it. In this way, sports can provide a little sense of hope and justice—that with the right strategy, against the right opponent, the little guy can come out on top.

I suppose, until very recently, many non-Liverpool fans must have felt a soft-spot for Liverpool in the same way I feel a soft-spot for Ajax. Like Ajax last night (and against Real Madrid in the previous round), Liverpool found success in Europe in the mid-2000s by becoming more than the sum of their parts. By using our history and European Pedigree™, Liverpool could somehow advance into the latter rounds of the Champions League against all odds.

The same could be said about Liverpool last season, perhaps, when Liverpool were underdogs against 100-point Manchester City and not only advanced but put the FFP jokes to shame.

This year’s Reds cannot get by on the same plucky underdog label. Liverpool are 20-1 favorites to advance tonight—not just because of the 2-0 home win, but because of the quality throughout the squad. And if Liverpool advance to face Barcelona in the semis, realistically there won’t be much between the two sides. Simply: no one would be surprised or shocked if Liverpool played their way into another final, and they might even be favorites if they do get there.

Liverpool have achieved more than they should have been capable of, even in years where they’ve come up just short, by simply embracing the us-against-the-world approach that comes with being an underdog. We might be a slight underdog in the league—but only just—and we certainly haven’t gotten to this vantage point by playing like an underdog.

There is a certain freedom that comes from being that plucky outsider. It allows you to crash the party with a devil-may-care attitude, and play like there’s no tomorrow, because there probably isn’t one.

This is not the position Liverpool now find themselves in. Unlike seasons in the past, they are expected to make this year’s semifinal. They are expected to win out, and to push Manchester City to the very last minute of the season. There’s more than a hope that Liverpool will lift something shiny, but an understanding that we’re good enough to do so.

Being a better squad, through and through, might prove to be a more successful approach, but the feelings of over-joyous delirium from last year’s Champions League run, or the title race in 13/14, are gone replaced by nerves and fear. All the nerves. All the fear. Because if we lose either the Champions League and/or the Premier League, even by the finest of margins, there will be an acknowledgement that greatness was there to be had, if only we were a fraction of a fraction better.

It’s unfair that this great Liverpool squad—maybe the greatest ever to don the liver bird—might finish on 97 points and still come up short. Financially, Liverpool are still an underdog, even if we’re not playing like one. In sports, as in life, those with money usually get what they want. Regardless, on Sunday we vanquished one financial-doping foe, and we’re fully capable of taking down another when the final whistle blows on the season.

As I said earlier, underdogs often play like there’s no tomorrow because there usually isn’t one for them. The last title-challenging Reds were a flash in the pan, with only Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge, and Simon Mignolet remaining from that squad. For them, there was only one real chance to win anything.

When the sun sets on this season, it will not end Klopp’s ability to win things with this squad. Whether we have won the double or walk away empty-handed, this squad has been built to pick itself back up and go again. And that is really the biggest shift since Klopp’s arrival: no matter what, we’ll be back.

For the moment, we can appreciate Ajax, and sympathize with their plight. Their squad will almost certainly be raided (possibly even by Liverpool), and they will need to rebuild. And we can hope that if we get to a second consecutive Champions League final, we’ll be the favorites this time around, and that we’ll do what favorites routinely do: win.