‘Because it’s you, we have a chance’ – Revisiting Liverpool’s Champions League miracle against Barcelona

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A year ago, Anfield witnessed its greatest night as Liverpool flipped the finger to a 3-0 deficit against Barcelona to reach a consecutive Champions League final.

Overturning such a scoreline during that stage of the competition against esteemed opposition was enough to constitute a football fairytale, but it was only half the story.

To fully appreciate the scale of the miracle requires a deconstruction of the entire setting around it.

Liverpool had entered the last-four tie with Ernesto Valverde’s charges enveloped in pressure due to a relentless, no-margin-for-error title race with Manchester City.

There was also a deep desperation to reach the European showpiece at the Wanda Metropolitano given their 2018 heartbreak against Real Madrid in Kiev. The objective to crown a remarkable campaign with silverware was mentally exacting and began to physically take its toll with the finish line in sight.

Liverpool were desperate to avenge their European heartbreak (Getty)
Liverpool were desperate to avenge their European heartbreak (Getty)

Roberto Firmino suffered a torn groin muscle ahead of the first leg at Camp Nou on May 1, with Jurgen Klopp selecting Gini Wijnaldum as a false nine because he needed “an offensive player who is quite good in defending as well that could work between the lines.”

If kicking off without the Brazilian – Liverpool’s “important player, connector, finisher, fighter and first defender” – was not arduous enough, the club lost Naby Keita on 24 minutes due to an adductor issue.

Still, the Merseysiders were dominant on Barca’s turf without putting the ball in the back of the net and thwarting Lionel Messi from doing the same.

Two goals from the Argentine in the final quarter of the match coupled with Luis Suarez’s first-half strike erased the gloss from what Klopp considered to be Liverpool’s “best away performance in the Champions League” under his tenure.

“Against a side like this, playing this kind of football I was completely happy,” was the German’s assessment. “We played between the lines, we were in the box, we had really good chances and caused them a lot of problems – that’s good.

“In the end, nobody is really interested – probably only football nerds will think about it – because it was about the result and we lost 3-0. I can work really well with this game, I will use this game to show the boys what is possible.

“It was brave performance that was very passionate, very lively and in a lot of moments creative and direct.”

Those were not simply soothing words after defeat by a drastic, undeserved margin.

Barcelona swept to victory in the first leg (Getty)
Barcelona swept to victory in the first leg (Getty)

Two things dominated Klopp’s thoughts post-match: the first was the deflating and unexpected conclusion that Firmino would not be fit for the reverse fixture after a cameo, but more importantly, Liverpool’s display gave him confidence that they could hurt Barca at Anfield in spite of the odds.

He shared that belief with his assistant, Pep Lijnders, but when preparations began for the second-leg, there was another sizeable setback to contend with.

Mohamed Salah suffered concussion in the 3-2 victory at Newcastle in a match which did not do much to promote the notion of keeping a clean sheet against Messi and co.

Liverpool would be without two of their core weapons and their prime midfielder in transition as they attempted to do the unthinkable, all while the rearguard shipped five in two fixtures.

Salah was injured during the Newcastle win (Getty)
Salah was injured during the Newcastle win (Getty)

The goal that Klopp most zoned in on at St James’ Park, however, was Divock Origi’s 87th-minute winner.

In the coaching strategy session a day before the hosting of Barca, the manager felt the lift the Belgium international extracted from that decisive contribution would be key for a fast start in the second-leg.

Liverpool planned to suffocate Marc-Andre ter Stegen in possession and the striker was a more natural option in closing him down than Wijnaldum, so it was imperative that he lined up at Anfield with confidence.

On matchday, Klopp asked Origi what his greatest performance in a Liverpool shirt had been. ‘Borussia Dortmund away’ in the Europa League was the response and the instruction the forward received was to match or supersede that outing.

It was decided Origi should start for Liverpool (Getty)
It was decided Origi should start for Liverpool (Getty)

“I felt at peace,” Origi recalled last year. “I went into the match feeling like we were going to do it.”

The Belgian’s calm and optimism did not entirely reflect the initial mood on Merseyside that Tuesday. The evening prior had seen a 25-yard scorcher from Vincent Kompany arrow into the top corner against Leicester City, effectively annihilating Liverpool’s chance of edging City to the title.

In a six-day period starting with defeat in Barcelona and ending with that thunderbolt from the centre-back, it was as if everything the club had expended in the season would amount to another ‘almost’. That was a sickening feeling.

“Being honest, we knew there was a very slim chance of anything happening against Barca,” Trent Alexander-Arnold admitted.

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At Melwood on the morning of the match, the deflation of City’s result morphed into defiance. James Milner demanded that the highlights be switched off in the canteen, Virgil van Dijk talked about relishing his tussle with Suarez following the Uruguayan’s theatrics in the first-leg and Jordan Henderson was reminding the squad of all the occasions they had already exceeded expectations.

The overriding mood at the training ground was later showcased via Salah’s choice of matchday attire – a black shirt with ‘Never Give Up’ dominating the front of it in bold, white lettering.

Liverpool’s supporters were also shaking off disappointment and planning to turn Anfield into a “football party” as per Klopp’s request. The team bus arrived at the stadium to a haze of red smoke and a resounding chorus of chants.

Joel Matip, Liverpool’s man of the match at Camp Nou, remembered disembarking and thinking that the players were being provided with the perfect backdrop to conjure a comeback.

Salah watches on (Getty)
Salah watches on (Getty)

“The atmosphere was already crazy when we came into the stadium, even though everybody knew the first-leg result and who we were coming up against,” he told the club’s official website.

“But the mood was good and it became better and better. It was just crazy. It was like a whole machine working there together – the players, the fans, everyone.”

On the terraces, the noise was escalating as kick off approached. As Liverpool headed back into the tunnel after the warm-up, belief naturally started to balloon for the squad too.

“We know this club is the mix of atmosphere, emotion, desire and football quality,” Klopp analysed in the aftermath of the 4-0 victory. “Cut off one and it doesn’t work – we know that.

“If I have to describe this club then it’s a big heart and it was obviously pounding like crazy.”

The teams arrive (Getty)
The teams arrive (Getty)

Along with a deafening crowd, the manager’s pre-match team talk helped shaped Liverpool’s daring strategy.

Klopp recalled: “I said, ‘We have to play without two of the best strikers in the world. The world outside is saying it is not possible. And let’s be honest, it’s probably impossible. But because it’s you? Because it’s you, we have a chance.’

“I really believed that. It wasn’t about their technical ability as footballers. It was about who they were as human beings and everything they had overcome in life. The only thing that I added was, ‘If we fail, then let’s fail in the most beautiful way.’”

In the opening minutes, Liverpool’s rabid desire to own the ball was revealed in how intensely they won it back. Within 120 seconds, Andy Robertson got stuck into Messi with Alexander-Arnold noting: “Robbo got under his skin. He was a little bit affected by it.”

Liverpool's starting XI (Getty)
Liverpool's starting XI (Getty)

Barca arrived at Anfield convinced they would score, so much so that the club’s Twitter account declared “we’re going to get at least one.”

They were prepared to soak up early pressure from Liverpool content in the knowledge that they would carve opportunities on the counter. The problem with that approach was it discounted a fundamental factor: allowing the hosts to take initiative and promote the emotional pull of Anfield is not very smart.

The visitors pointed to as much afterwards, admitting they got sucked into the opposition’s design of the game. Suarez hinted that some of his teammates believed the job was already done at Camp Nou and progression would be a formality.

It took seven minutes for Liverpool to undercut that notion with Origi’s opener. Henderson grabbed the ball, running back to the centre spot with it under one arm and galvanising the crowd with the other.

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Suarez was struggling to get the measure of Van Dijk, while the hosts disrupted the ability of Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets to shape play when in possession.

Liverpool had pulled a goal back going into the interval, but they lost Robertson to injury. Henderson had spent all of half-time on a bike so he could play through the pain of a knee niggle.

An “angry” Wijnaldum replaced the left-back, pushing James Milner into the defensive role and Barca were more confident after the break.

That was until the substitute produced two goals in two minutes.

Origi scored the opening goal (Getty)
Origi scored the opening goal (Getty)

Alisson, who would repel every Barca opening, started to notice a familiar look about La Liga’s champions after the first of those.

The goalkeeper had been in-between the sticks for Roma at the same Champions League stage in 2018 when Valverde’s side surrendered a three-goal advantage from the first-leg.

“When you achieve something once, you know it’s possible to do that again,” Alisson explained to The Independent.

“I knew it was a different situation and difficult club, but we could do it.

“Barca were thinking about that game against Roma for sure and they were talking about it. Everyone from Barca was saying they had learnt from that experience and it will not happen again.

“I knew how important the defensive phase was – if you concede once, you’re pretty much dead in the mind. And when we scored the second goal, we believed that we could really make a miracle happen.

“I think in that moment, they were remembering that Roma game because when I looked at Messi and Suarez, they had their heads down with their hands on their hair like they were feeling it’s coming again.”

Wijnaldum levelled the score (Getty)
Wijnaldum levelled the score (Getty)

At 3-3, Liverpool had erased Barca’s advantage and had them on the ropes. Then came “the smartest thing I ever saw football-wise” as per Klopp.

Alexander-Arnold won a corner on 78 minutes, placed the ball and shaped to take it before Shaqiri requested responsibility for the set-piece. The right-back obliged and began to motion away, before noticing Barca had briefly switched off.

Origi, lurking in the danger area, was alert to any opportunity and so Alexander-Arnold swivelled back towards the ball sharply.

He delivered a cross for the striker to complete a barely believable comeback, while making Barca “look like youngsters” in Suarez’s analysis.

“I looked at the ref, looked at the linesman,” Alexander-Arnold said. “I didn’t believe it happened, I thought it’s too easy to have a goal like that in the semis of the Champions League.”