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A Brief History of Liverpool’s 2018-19 Champions League Run, Part 1

Liverpool’s run to reach the final has been memorable. We begin our look back at how they got to Madrid with the group stage.

Liverpool v SSC Napoli - UEFA Champions League Group C Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Liverpool are in the Champions League final for the second year in a row, and while the outcome of the match itself will go a long way to deciding how everything that has gone before will be remembered, right now it feels as though the run to get to it in 2018-19 has been noteworthy.

In a way that perhaps wasn’t the case last season, Liverpool have been put in difficult positions this time around. On more than one occasion, their Champions League run has appeared done, finished. Each time, though, this squad has dug deep and found a way to take that next step.

If they win on Saturday, the story of this Champions League journey will become part of the club’s history, talked of alongside 2005’s miraculous run. The squad by almost any measure is better this time around, but for all the times it’s felt they’re nearly out, in some ways it has been just as miraculous.

We start with the group stage, then, where Liverpool were drawn into this year’s Group of Death. Finals opponents Tottenham drew their own difficult group with Barcelona, Inter, and PSV, but UEFA’s coefficients said that Liverpool had it worse. And while fans were quick to talk up Liverpool’s strengths, deep down everyone knew that making it out of a group with Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli, and Red Star Belgrade was no sure thing.

Liverpool 3 - 2 Paris Saint-Germain

It certainly got off to a good start, though, as French big spenders PSG arrived at Anfield for the opener—and headed home with a humbling defeat thanks to a stoppage time goal by Roberto Firmino. And while PSG boss Thomas Tuchel complained that the scoreline didn’t fully reflect the game, Paris had needed a pair of controversial calls to go in their favour for it to even be level late.

First, Daniel Sturridge made contact with a loose ball in the penalty area in the first half, reaching it before the goalkeeper and with the ricochet falling to Mohamed Salah. But the goal was waved off—Sturridge made contact with the goalkeeper with his follow-through and it was judged to be interference. Later, PSG striker Edinson Cavani was offside in the buildup to what became their first half leveller.

Liverpool, though, ended the match with nearly double PSG’s shots, shots on goal, and expected goals. The scoreline might have been a close one, but for Liverpool a win was a win—and more than that, the performance that went with this win suggested this Liverpool side just might be able to dominate their group of death. Also, it was the match that gave us James Milner destroying Neymar. So it had that, too.

Napoli 1 - 0 Liverpool

Then, Liverpool followed it up by heading to Italy and putting in a display of ineffective lethargy for the ages. Napoli may have left it until the 90th minute to score their goal, but the Reds were never in this one, managing zero shots on target and a measly 0.1 expected goals while conceding the bulk of possession to Napoli.

Playing a cautious game on the road against a strong team was one thing, and setting up to defend and try to hit them on the break might have made sense in theory, but as it played out Liverpool mostly just sat back and sat back some more and then did nothing. Napoli didn’t look especially dangerous themselves, making for a nigh-on unwatchable match, but when their goal did come it was impossible to say that they hadn’t been better than a Liverpool side putting in what at the time was their worst performance of the season.

So much for any talk of dominating their group of death.

Liverpool 4 - 0 Red Star

Perhaps, though, Napoli was a blip. After all, that game had come right before Liverpool faced Manchester City in the Premier League. On the road, in Italy, against a very strong opponent—perhaps Liverpool had set up to conserve energy and earn a point and, after all, they had just barely missed out on doing that.

Because this, here. This looked like Liverpool at their flying best. This looked like the Liverpool that had for long stretches run riot against Porto and Roma and City in Europe the previous season. This was Firmino and Mané and Salah—twice—scoring goals. It was more than 20 shots and holding the ball for two-thirds of the match. It was dominance, pure and simple, and it meant that Liverpool hit the half way point of group play on top, with six points to Napoli’s five and PSG’s four.

Red Star 2 - 0 Liverpool

Then, disaster. The return leg against Red Star. The Marakana. One of the most imposing atmospheres in European football. Xherdan Shaqiri being left behind in Liverpool over fears of violence from crowd after the Swiss-Albanian winger had celebrated by flashing a hand signal for the Albanian double eagle when scoring against Serbia at the previous summer’s World Cup.

And it wasn’t even that Liverpool played all that badly, not on the whole. They had the ball nearly three-quarters of the time, more than at Anfield. They again took more than 20 shots. Their finishing, though, was off. They struggled to turn possession into anything worthwhile in the final third.

Something about the mood and tone of the match, of Milan Pavkov’s two first half goals and the Reds’ inability to craft actual quality chances—of those 20-plus shots, only four were on target—made it feel worse than perhaps it was in the end, but by any measure it was bad. It was a loss to the presumed fourth side in a group of death. Still, PSG and Napoli had drawn their match, so Liverpool remained in the top two with six points alongside PSG. That was the positive Liverpool fans were clinging to after a deflating loss—but everyone was aware that this was a result that meant they had lost any breathing room.

Paris Saint-Germain 2 - 1 Liverpool

From being in control of the group to being in tight race to falling behind. When the fifth round of the Champions League group stage ended Liverpool had one foot in the Europa League, and at the time that honestly looked about the best that they deserved as PSG came out of the gate flying and Liverpool soaked up pressure and soaked up pressure and soaked up pressure. And then conceded a goal. Then a second.

The Reds were lucky to end the first half and the game having lost just 2-1 to a PSG side that, for at least one game, looked to have finally clicked into proper gear in Europe. Liverpool were outplayed, second to every ball, and Neymar and Kylian Mbappé looked to have too much skill and speed for the Reds to handle. If the opening group game at Anfield had been a case of Paris being lucky to end up with a scoreline that made it look like they were in it at all, the same could be said here about Liverpool—but even more so.

It wasn’t just the defeat or that they fell to third while Napoli beat Red Star and moved past them in the group standings and PSG established themselves at the top of it that hurt, it was the manner of it all. A close loss to Napoli on the road before the City match could be explained, but after a road loss to Red Star and now an absolute hammering at the Parc des Princes, even if Liverpool in theory still controlled their own destiny, it hardly felt it.

Liverpool 1 - 0 Napoli

Napoli headed into the final game on nine points and a clear advantage. Liverpool had six points and knew only a 1-0 victory or a victory by two goals if Napoli scored would give them the edge in the tiebreakers. Given how the first game in Italy had played out and how Liverpool’s Champions League campaign had seemingly crumbled, it was hard to feel very good about the situation. That first victory against PSG had been good, and for whatever it was worth they’d at least beat the group’s fourth side at Anfield, but outside of that there wasn’t a lot to take confidence from.

If many fans weren’t feeling all that confident, though, the players didn’t get the memo—and for their part, those actually in Anfield crowd did what they always seem to do on big nights in Europe. Liverpool came out hard, pinning Napoli back from the opening minute, playing a suffocating high press and creating chances. Finally, in the 34th minute, a Napoli side that had appeared to have shown up targeting a draw cracked as Salah bullied his way past one defender and ghosted around a second before nutmegging the goalkeeper to put Liverpool up.

Eventually, though, with Liverpool unable to get the second that their strong play deserved, Napoli woke up—a goal would be enough for them—and the sides traded chances. Salah could have had his second. Sadio Mané had an opportunity to put the game to bed and didn’t. Then, in the dying minutes, Arkadiusz Milik had Napoli’s best chance of the night, clear in on Alisson with the chance to send Liverpool down to the Europa League. The Liverpool goalkeeper made himself as big as he could and from point-blank range Milik had nothing to shoot at.

Napoli, and not Liverpool, were down to the Europa League. Liverpool, somehow, had survived—not just the Milik chance but their own misses against Napoli at Anfield and their lethargic showing against them in Italy and their disastrous road outings against Red Star and PSG. Liverpool had gone from in control of the group to having one foot out of the Champions League and somehow, with a Salah goal and an Alisson stop and a little help from Anfield, instead they were into the knockout rounds.

It felt, at the time, a bit miraculous. It felt inexplicable. And, given how they’d played at times, nobody was entirely sure how they would fare moving forward. But Liverpool were through, and until the next game at least that was all that mattered.

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