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A Brief History of Liverpool’s 2018-19 Champions League Run, Part 2

If Liverpool win the Champions League, their journey to get there will be remembered as an all-time great.

Liverpool v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Liverpool barely made it out of their group of death, only securing advancement with a 1-0 victory against Napoli in the final game knowing almost any other scoreline wouldn’t be good enough. They left it late, and they barely made it over the line, and that meant that everyone headed into the knockout rounds uncertain of what to expect.

It didn’t help that, as the winter dragged on the club was hitting a period of relative struggle domestically—still getting results, only those results were increasingly draws rather than wins. It was an open question, then, whether Liverpool could rediscover their crushing form of the past season’s Champions League run, or if there would be more struggle—struggle like their road losses to Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain, and Red Star Belgrade.

Liverpool 0 - 0 Bayern Munich

Their first chance to answer those questions didn’t result in much of an answer. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich arrived at Anfield with their own set of questions and uncertainties. The German giants had struggled domestically in the autumn, but their fans believed they were rounding into form at the right time to just maybe catch Dortmund in the Bundesliga and make a deep run in the Champions League—and given they did in fact go on to catch Dortmund and win the Bundesliga, it’s clear that Liverpool were in fact facing a very difficult opponent.

More than that, in addition to their dipping form—or perhaps at the root of it—Liverpool were in the midst of a defensive injury crisis and Virgil van Dijk was out for the first leg due to an accumulation of yellow cards, meaning Joël Matip and midfielder Fabinho started in a cobbled-together defence. Yet in the end the match itself saw Liverpool largely dominant. They had recently drawn with Leicester and West Ham in the league—and would go on to draw with Man United immediately after facing Bayern—but for one night in what would be a very, very difficult February for the Reds, they looked at their best. And somehow it still wasn’t enough.

Liverpool had played poorly at times—in the Champions League and Premier League both—but it was hard to think of a time they played as well as they did against Bayern in the first leg and didn’t get the result. Heading back to Germany for the second leg, then, it almost felt as though Liverpool had thrown away their best chance at advancing. They’d had their shot, at Anfield no less, and now the advantage turned in Bayern’s favour.

Bayern Munich 1 - 3 Liverpool

As in the group stages when they left it late and unlikely, so too in the Round of 16, and much of that only thanks to the heroics of Sadio Mané. Oddly, while Liverpool were again better than Bayern—Bayern, champions of Germany, in their building—they didn’t create as much as in the home leg where they had failed to score.

Only, well, there was Mané. There was Mané, bamboozling Manuel Neuer to score 26 minutes into the match to open things. There was Mané, heading home a delightfully chipped cross from Mohamed Salah in the 84th minute to seal the tie. In between, Virgil van Dijk scored a thumper off a corner and Matip was unfortunate to finally record the own goal he’d been desperately trying not to get for a few games back in March.

Liverpool v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

And if Liverpool perhaps weren’t as dominant in their attacking play as the final score suggested and as they had been in the first leg, what they were in Germany was professional. Calm, controlled, suffocating. On the road, against the eventual German champions, Liverpool looked a class above the opposition.

The final score of the two-legged tie in the end felt a fair reflection of the 180 minutes that had come before, even if the road to it—massively out-chancing the Germans at Anfield and getting nothing before putting in an assured, grinding road performance that somehow resulted in three goals at the Allianz—played out a little strangely.

Liverpool again left it late and made it more awkward than it should have been, but all told it was the right result—and it was a result that allowed the quality of their first leg showing to shine through a little more despite that scoreline while the second leg highlighted this group’s growing maturity and belief.

Liverpool 2 - 0 Porto

If the Round of 16 had been an odd and uneven ride to get to its proper end point, a re-match of last season’s Round of 16 offered a chance for Liverpool to prove that their better moments against Bayern were the sign of a team itself starting to round back into form, and Liverpool didn’t disappoint. Maturity. Belief. And, at times, dominance.

Liverpool came out in an attacking mood, and while Naby Keïta’s opener had an element of good fortune, by the end of the night the hosts will have felt they deserved more than the 2-0 victory. The game never really felt in doubt. Liverpool were better, stronger, faster. And their finishing, if not outstanding on the evening, was at least good enough in this first leg.

Porto 1 - 4 Liverpool

Then, in the second leg, it was outstanding. Porto were forced to open up their game at home in search of the goals they knew they would need and Liverpool responded with a storming attacking performance. Porto gamely tried to match the Reds early, but those early forays almost felt quaint as their chances crashed against Liverpool’s defensive wall, and as the minutes ticked past it began to almost felt too easy as Liverpool began to push forward themselves, exploiting the spaces left by a side that couldn’t keep up with their speed and physicality but knew they had to try to even have a chance in the tie.

That chance for Porto disappeared completely when Sadio Mané scored, Liverpool’s in-form forward again registering a 26th minute opener on the continent, an away goal that meant Porto would need to score four times without a response from the Reds. Then Salah got his, then Firmino, then Van Dijk with another headed effort off another corner. Somewhere in the midst of it all, Eder Militao scored a consolation goal for Porto, but at no point after things kicked off in Portugal did the game or tie feel in doubt. Porto had beaten Roma in the Round of 16 and won their group, but in the end the 6-1 aggregate scoreline felt like a fair reflection of the tie.

Barcelona 3 - 0 Liverpool

Liverpool were confident now, and why shouldn’t they be? Those away day struggles in the group stage felt a distant memory. Their winter lull in the league had been put behind them. They had done Bayern and demolished Porto, and why not Barcelona now as well?

Barcelona v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Not that everything was rosy in the land of Liverpool, mind. There was the not insignificant matter of an injury to Roberto Firmino, their attacking fulcrum and press-setting false nine. Still, if Liverpool had entered the knockout rounds in a place of uncertainty, there was none of that now. They knew—the fans, the players, the pundits—that this was a top side, one capable of going toe-to-toe with arguably the best team in Europe and unquestionably the game’s greatest ever player.

Which is exactly what they did. At the Camp Nou, without Firmino, against the game’s greatest ever player, they more than gave the La Liga champions a game. And everything, every chance and bounce and decisive moment went against them and in the end they were down three goals without even an away goal consolation.

Given the opponent and the venue, there’s a case Liverpool’s performance had been even better than in that first leg against Bayern when they’d outplayed the Germans and felt hard done by to only have a nil-nil to show for it. If that result had been an annoyance and a blow that had felt as though it tilted things in favour of their opponents, this result hurt and, for at least the next day or two, made it feel as though the tie was over.

Because if Liverpool couldn’t get anything—couldn’t even get an away goal—against Barcelona after playing that well against them, what hope did they have? What hope was there, down three goals needing to score four while holding the game’s greatest ever player and his entourage off the scoresheet? What hope was there needing to score five or six or more if Barcelona got the away goal Liverpool hadn’t?

Liverpool 4 - 0 Barcelona

Even knowing how it ends, even most of a month on from it, it somehow doesn’t feel real. Firmino was still out, not even judged fit enough to make the bench this time around, and Mo Salah now was injured, too. In the league just two days earlier, Manchester City had dispatched Leicester, and with that Liverpool’s best chance at winning their first league trophy in 29 years was gone. Meanwhile, Liverpool had been in a draining, a slugfest with Newcastle on the weekend, and Barcelona, their league already won, had rested everyone.

There have been famous Anfield nights before, and famous Liverpool comebacks. There has been Milan and Olympiakos and St. Etienne and Brugge and Dortmund. There will surely be others in the future. There may never be another comeback and another famous European night that quite measures up to what Liverpool did against Barcelona on the 7th of May, when despite the disappointment of the league and despite the disappointment of the first leg, Liverpool believed. And Anfield believed. And the two, the team and the supporters, fed off each other while Barcelona shook and tried to stand and steadied themselves under the combined weight of it all and then, in the end, crumbled. Arguably the best team in Europe and unquestionably the game’s greatest ever player, undone.

Liverpool v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Divock Origi’s early opener confirmed belief, and while Barcelona held their nerve for a time—for an entire half, even—as Liverpool looked to overwhelm them, under the weight and the pressure put on them by eleven players and 50,000 screaming fans, finally they cracked, knocked out of the match by a pair of Gini Wijnaldum goals in the 54th and 56th minutes. Two minutes, two goals, and Barcelona were finished. The tie may have still been level, and an away goal would surely have seen them through, but Barcelona—Barcelona—had been overwhelmed. By the stage, the situation, the moment, the opponent.

In a way, Origi’s unlikely finisher, the quick-thinking of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s unexpected quick corner catching Barcelona in a daze, not even watching as he turned back to the ball and drilled a low cross into the penalty area, was the most fitting way to end it. The only way it could have ended. The final blow. The coup de grâce. The end of Barca’s Champions League run and another famous Anfield European night—for now at least the famous Anfield European nightin the books.

Now, Madrid. The Champions League final. And Tottenham standing in the way of this group of players completing their story. The story of a narrow escape from the group stage, of Bayern and of Porto and of Barcelona. Of facing the champions of France and Germany and Portugal and Spain to get to this point. Of this side’s growing maturity and their sheer bloody-minded will to win, no matter the opponent or odds or situation.

Tottenham are a strong opponent and fully capable of adding an unsatisfying final chapter to Liverpool’s 2018-19 Champions League run, but with all that has come before, Liverpool will believe—the players and every last fan—that this group can end their story the right way.

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