Liverpool chart route through chaos to the Champions League final but in Real Madrid their truest test now awaits

It has been suggested that Liverpool’s route to this point of rare opportunity has been gentle and consistently fortunate. That is ridiculous

Simon Hughes
Stadio Olimpico
Thursday 03 May 2018 08:03
No points for second best in Champions League final, says Klopp

On a broiling, airless night, the din was biblical. From the Curva Sud came a locust trill, as if God on his home patch had permitted Rome to strike down on Liverpool as he once did over Egypt in demonstration of his power. This time, however, a Liverpool team containing its own Pharaoh did not suffer the ultimate penance.

If you believe in celestial influences and you think one might have been at play here, you will conclude it sided with Liverpool at judgement time. Roma were back to square one and chasing three goals again when Stephan El Shaarawy’s shot was the recipient of a save, one that was probably better than any made by either of Liverpool’s goalkeepers this season. One issue. The save was made by Trent Alexander-Arnold.

The Slovenian referee and his additional assistant standing only yards away did not see it. A penalty. A red card, surely. Liverpool would have been under enormous pressure with half an hour or so left to go in this bear pit of a stadium. Yet Alexander-Arnold remained and Liverpool were spared. What had El Shaarawy, Roma’s outstanding performer, done to deserve this? The nationality of his father is Egyptian...

It is fair to say Liverpool have reached Kiev in their own unique way. This is a team that can win 5-2 at home and make you feel the despair of defeat. This is a team that can lose 4-2 away and make you feel like it was miraculous a victory. Look at their last four games. In the first 75 minutes, they are 9-2 up. In the last 15 minutes, they are 6-0 down. They are mad. Has a football team ever been so ruthless and so vulnerable at the same time? Has a football team ever been so human – so relatable, so confusing?

By the end, Liverpool still found a way to ensure they were hanging on. Radja Nainggolan’s injury time penalty brought Roma to within a goal of extra time. Fear. Christ, this cannot happen, can it? It could not. Seconds later, the final whistle came like a cool wave: relief washing over Liverpool’s players. It was enough to make the mighty Virgil van Dijk fall to his knees in exhaustion, thrusting his hands in the air and looking towards the skies; thanking someone, presumably.

In the chaos, it took a while for the sense of achievement to really sink in. Half an hour after Liverpool’s players had returned to the dressing room, Jürgen Klopp reappeared from the tunnel, legging it towards Liverpool’s supporters in the north-eastern corner of the ground. They would be there for another 90 minutes because of the safety fears around this match. At least five of those minutes were spent with Klopp who was absolutely revelling in it. It was a wonderful moment of matrimony led by the man who has made all of this possible.

Liverpool will take on Real Madrid in Kiev

It has been a difficult week for Klopp, of course, with many of Liverpool’s enemies and critics jumping to the conclusion that Zeljko Buvac’s exit as his assistant proves that he is not the glossy brochure the media apparently make him out to be. He has always stressed he is not perfect and it is because of his imperfections, he appears to be able to relate to players that give the impression they would walk to Kiev with sacks on their shoulders for him if asked.

There are natural concerns from here and some of them are understandable. The midfield appears to be tiring – and it is not one to fall in love with anyway. There is no central figure with the capability to wow. There is no Steven Gerrard, no Xabi Alonso or Didi Hamann, those stately figures of the past. Instead there are workers: all legs, muscle and bone. If you stop and think about it, though, this is the area of the team that really embodies Klopp’s Liverpool because it is sacrificial. It does not take. It is structured to help. It is a trio of Nigel Spackmans. Will there be enough left in the tank come the end of May?

There might be another issue at right-back, where Joe Gomez is injured, Nathaniel Clyne is nowhere up to speed and Alexander-Arnold is still being targeted by managers, not necessarily because he is viewed as weak but because he is young and inexperienced. This was his toughest game in Liverpool’s first team and he will need to be better against Marcelo, Real Madrid’s outstanding left-back who operates the whole wing.

Alexander-Arnold’s presence, though, gives Liverpool soul. He is the academy player that grew up in West Derby, the area of the city where Melwood is. He is talented and he is smart. His mum, Diane, is a huge influence. When he passed all of his GCSE’s, some of the grades were C’s. Famously, Diane told him that “C stands for crap”. This teenager knows about standards. By helping Liverpool reach the Champions League final in his first full-season, he is setting them at the highest level.

It has been suggested that Liverpool’s route to this point of rare opportunity has been gentle and consistently fortunate. Ridiculous. Few teams have managed to beat Manchester City this season, let alone three times – twice in Europe. Neither Chelsea, Atlético Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk nor Barcelona had scored a goal in Rome and had Liverpool not scored twice here in the end, they would have been out.

Now, the truest test will come against Real, a club that is aiming for their third European crown in a row, an unprecedented feat which has not been realised in the Champions League era. Real, remember, have won each of their last six finals, a run that stretches back to the sweltering summer of 1981. The opponents that year came from a city under siege, one filled with doubt about the future. That city was Liverpool. And this article started with signs.

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