This was not a football match. It was a message.
It was a message sent by Liverpool to its next victim – be it Ajax or the Spurs. Or perhaps even a subtle call to league leaders Manchester City that while this Sunday may make them kings of England, Liverpool may well be kings of Europe come June.
That future while highly plausible, is yet to happen. What did occur less than two hours ago, was a massacre of a scale that leaves even gods in tears.
After a dismal performance at Camp Nou losing 3-0 to goals by Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, the Reds should be licking their wounds in anticipation of a strident force coming to ravage their home. After all, Barcelona is the current La Liga champion, a team of footballing deities meant to rule the world.
And yet, they didn’t.
In fact, from the first whistle, Jurgen Klopp’s men displayed the sort of ferocious tenacity that showed their collective intent on defying the odds.
Everything that had happened within that magical 99 minutes at Anfield was a magnum opus on show. It was an opera that even Verdi could not have written, it was sport in its truest essence of the word.
The chants, “Allez, Allez, Allez,” were more than just a religious way of displaying loyalty for Liverpool Football Club. Another miracle in Istanbul was in the making and the electrifying sensation was there as soon as Divork Origi sent a rebound into the opposing net within just six minutes of play.
For those in Singapore, this was a match in the middle of a work week that started at 3am and would have had a likelihood of ending at a very, very sour 5am before a commute to school or work.
Those who did stay up, thronging the pubs that stayed open for this specific purpose, those true fans had been rewarded as heartily as those who had stayed behind to watch the second half during that fateful Turkish night in 2005.
“Mate, there’s no way Liverpool could pull off another ‘Istanbul’ innit?” said a British fan who would later bemoan the fact that he couldn’t be back home watching it live in the stadium.
A Second String
Jurgen Klopp made major changes to his side from the first leg with starting berths for Divock Origi on the left wing and Xherdan Shaqiri on the right.
A midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Fabinho ensured a high work-rate in the middle of the pitch and flanked by the Premier League’s highest assisting full-backs of the season – Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson.
Klopp wasn’t preparing just for a win; as earlier indicated, he wanted a massacre.
The German carried a serious demeanour from kick-off, unlike the usual jovial grin that he hangs on the side of his lips. He was hell-bent on righting the wrongs of the first leg.
With Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino both injured, many critics had written off Liverpool’s chances to progress to the next round. How could they without two of their talismanic front three?
Shaqiri had not started a match since the middle of the season with only seven starts before that and Origi had been dubiously inconspicuous since his much heralded arrival in the summer of 2015. A headless chicken, one would call the Belgian, whose raw speed and strength seems misplaced most of the time.
Sadio Mane, who was acting as both the creative outlet and the focal point of the offence, had too much on his plate. The Senegalese drifted in and out of the wide channels, sometimes a bit too enthusiastic.
However, a touch of brilliance from Mane intercepted a long ball from a teammate and released Henderson on towards goal. The captain’s effort was parried but Origi was in the box for the follow up to put them up for an early lead just 7 minutes in.
The Power of the Counter Press
It was humorous to see a team as talented and dominant as Barcelona come to Liverpool and concede possession. The match stats showed the Spanish giants having a larger share of the ball (52% against the Red’s 48%) but in reality, they have been holding on to it for dear life rather than with menacing intent.
It was testament to how much teams were pinned back by the counter-attacking proficiency of Klopp’s men; even a skilled, high possession team like Barcelona.
For the first 35 minutes, Liverpool were pressing hard with both Henderson and Fabinho imposing their physicality primarily on Lionel Messi – a constant reminder for the Argentinian that he is in Anfield.
Barcelona was a shadow of themselves but not for lack of effort. They were simply outplayed.
Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets had their work cut out for the evening, constantly getting pressured by the front-three of Liverpool and struggling to create space.
Vidal still showcased his skills like the world-class player that he is, with interception after interception, he played with Busquets much like how a metronome would conduct an orchestra, except this time, the lead conductor was nowhere to be found.
It wasn’t that Barcelona were not able to create chances – they produced many brilliant moments, only to be thwarted by Alisson Becker.
The custodian is the unanimous Man-of-the-Match for the Mantality desk.
His performance in front of goal was second-to-none and is certainly his best showing to date, which is saying a plenty for a man who is in line to win the Golden Glove in the Premier League this season.
Four clear cut chances for the Catalonians in the first 45 minutes, and the Brazilian saved them all.
Same Tactics, Different Results
Ernesto Valverde played with the exact same line-up and the same tactics as the first leg.
Later, an ineffective Coutinho came off amidst jeers from the home crowd, to be replaced by a young Nelson Semedo to cover the full back position while Sergi Roberto moved up to the middle third of the pitch.
There was nothing wrong with his tactics, Liverpool played the same as they did in the first leg, except they were converting their chances.
Andrew Robertson was subbed off at the start of the second half to make way for Georgino Wijnaldum. The Dutch international then scored two quick goals in the 54th and 56th minute to extend the hosts’ lead to 3-0.
A powerful shot that beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen and another thumping header into the top corner, any slander on Wijnaldum for his performance on the offensive end last week was put to sleep within a mere two minutes. From there, the tie was levelled and it was game on.
In the 79th minute, Origi came through when Alexander-Arnold attempted a cheeky corner which was neglected by every defender in the penalty box – a schoolboy error that understandably made the entire Barcelona team look juvenile.
And with that, Origi netted his brace for the night to cement himself as a hero – at least for this season.
As the ball went rolling into the back of the net, with a sea of fluorescent yellow looking on, it was akin to poetry in motion. Liverpool has done it – again. Another historical comeback completed.
Was it Barcelona who collapsed due to the intensity of Anfield, or was it the atmosphere at the Kop End that dissected Messi’s marauders?
Call it solace, as fans of Roma and Paris St Germain would agree with.
Barcelona was done and beaten way before the final whistle was blown. Hands on their hips, dismayed expressions. They would be left to rue over the events that occured during those long, tired 90 minutes.
“The whole game was too much,” Klopp said during the post-match interview.. “Winning is difficult but with a clean sheet, I don’t know how they did it.”
“It’s 10:10pm and the children are probably in bed, so I”m sorry about the language but can I say, these boys are f***king talented giants. It’s all about the players.”
This performance was no Istanbul 2005, this is Anfield 2019.Leave a comment