Liverpool win a corner on the right. There’s a roar as Trent Alexander-Arnold jogs over to take it. Then, before he can deliver it, there’s another roar, this time louder. Fifty yards away, on the edge of the centre circle, Lionel Messi is wagging his finger angrily at Andy Robertson.
Barcelona are 3-0 up on aggregate. A ninth Champions League final is seemingly theirs for the taking. And yet the greatest footballer the world has seen is being riled by a left-back from Giffnock in Glasgow. We’ve played one minute, and already the night is shaking with possibility.
This is Liverpool’s gift: to rip up what you thought you knew about football and footballers, to take you – mentally and physically – to a place you don’t know and never wanted to go. To make your eardrums ring and your sinuses twang and your heart thump to the point where it’s all you can think about. To the point where you start to question yourself. To the point where you don’t realise you’ve left a massive gap in your left channel until it’s just a fraction of a second too late.
Barcelona know there’s no Mo Salah to contend with tonight, so perhaps unconsciously they’ve tacked right in anticipation of the threat of Sadio Mane. Jordi Alba doesn’t normally misplace headers, but this time he does. Jordan Henderson doesn’t normally find himself in the penalty area snacking on loose balls, but this time he does. Divock Origi doesn’t normally start at all, but this time he is. We’ve played seven minutes, Liverpool are 1-0 up, and there’s not a soul in the world who can tell you how this is going to turn out.
Jurgen Klopp loves his players taking long shots. There’s a school of thought that the long shot is a low-percentage effort that rarely results in a goal and often needlessly squanders possession in a promising area. But while long shots may register low on the xG (expected goals) scale, they rank high on the xG (expected gasps) scale. You can whistle one just over the bar. You can rattle the post. You can force the goalkeeper into an acrobatic save and win a corner. Occasionally, you can even score.
Or, more likely, the ball hits someone. And in that pregnant pocket of time when the ball runs loose and is spinning furiously and unpredictably on its axis, it doesn’t really matter who you are. Whether you were born in Bootle or Buenos Aires or in a giant Nasa football laboratory, hatched from an incubated ostrich egg and raised by benevolent droid servant. For that fraction of a second, it’s about speed and sharpness, and hunger, and often blind stupid luck. Robertson’s shot spins wickedly wide, but not before Ter Stegen has scrambled desperately to his right, his career choices flashing portentously before him.
The rest of the first half passes in something of a blur. At least, that’s probably what it feels like if you’re in Barcelona yellow. Ter Stegen larrups the ball straight out of play. Nobody has seen Philippe Coutinho for about half an hour and his parents are beginning to get worried. Messi gets the ball 14 yards out with the goal at his mercy, and doesn’t score, doesn’t miss, doesn’t force a save, but loses the ball. Just as simply and as carelessly as if it were a 5p coin slipping through a hole in his pocket. If Barcelona didn’t already know something funny was happening, they do now.
Half-time comes and goes. The Liverpool supporters sip contentedly on their teas. There’s no point witnessing a footballing miracle, after all, if you haven’t got a cuppa to enjoy it with. Barcelona trot out after the break, meanwhile, with their senses restored. It’s been a tough half, but they still lead 3-1 in the tie. Slow the game, keep the ball, see out the next 15 minutes, and the storm will pass.
What they don’t realise is that they’re in the eye of it.
Luis Suarez is staring into space. To describe it as a thousand-yard stare would be to undersell it by an order of magnitude. Such is the sunkenness of his eyes, the emptiness of his glare, the blankness of his features, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he could see straight into his front room in Uruguay. From his expression alone, you wouldn’t know if he were watching a nuclear mushroom cloud, Chamberlain’s declaration of war on Germany or a video on dental etiquette.
What’s just happened is that Gini Wijnaldum has headed Liverpool into a 3-0 lead on the night. Once again, this is a scenario that has been transcribed from the pages of pure fantasy. Jordi Alba doesn’t normally get tackled in his own corner, but this time he does. Ter Stegen doesn’t normally let shots squirm under his arm, but this time he does. Clement Lenglet doesn’t normally lose his man in the area, but this time he does. Gini Wijnaldum doesn’t normally score at all. He has one Champions League goal in his entire Liverpool career. Now he has two in the space of two minutes.
From the moment his plane touched down in England, Suarez has been the focus of Liverpool’s rage. The torrent of boos had begun even before a ball had been kicked. Just the mere proximity of Suarez to the ball at kick-off was enough to bring Anfield out in paroxysms of hate. “F--- off, Suarez,” they chant at him during the first half as he wins a soft free-kick on the edge of the Liverpool area.
Suarez can take all this. In a way, there’s a part of him that relishes it. The baring of teeth, the saliva-flecked invective, the jeers and the derision: this is all collateral damage, the simple cost of doing business in a game that must be won at all costs. If the opposition are directing their anger at him, then he’s doing his job. But what he’s feeling now is something far deeper and unfamiliar: real pain. Liverpool are 3-0 up, and nobody in the stadium could care less about him in that moment.
Well, the fourth goal. What on earth is there to be said about the fourth goal? Only that if you had sat Barcelona’s players down in the dressing room before the game and told them that not only would they lose 4-0, but that the fourth goal would be scored while half of them were looking in the other direction, they’d give you an extremely strange look.
Football is a game of systems and tactics. Football is a game of formbooks and numbers. Football is a game hopelessly rigged in favour of those with existing advantage. That’s all true, but equally you can’t line up this Barcelona team against this Liverpool team – no Salah, no Firmino, dealt a hammer blow in the Premier League less than 24 hours earlier – and argue a four-goal disparity between them. You can’t analyse that final goal on Wyscout. And you can’t explain how Barcelona – the best team in the world, with perhaps the best player ever to draw breath – can capitulate as comprehensively as this.
The weeks ahead will be full of hustle and bustle. There’s a Premier League title to be won and lost. There’s Madrid, there’s Ajax or Tottenham, there’s hours of scrabbling around on Expedia and Skyscanner and WhatsApp trying to find a bed or a floor to kip on. But when the curtain comes down on this season, and for many years to come, Liverpool fans will bond over the belief and the disbelief of this night. “The Barcelona game,” they’ll say, and that’ll be all they need to say. A night when Anfield heaved with the heft of the impossible, when a crowd of thousands and an audience of millions lost itself in the mad, dangerous intoxication of football.
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