Liverpool demonstrate the power of faith in rousing Champions League victory over Manchester City

Liverpool believed unflinchingly, unquestionably and with the zeal of the self-appointed chosen. In the end, this was all that mattered

Jonathan Liew
Anfield
Wednesday 04 April 2018 22:01
Comments
Liverpool will have to work %27like hell%27 in second leg

The waiting was the worst bit. During those long hours before the game, a barren desert of time, the Liverpool fans paced the Anfield concourses, hovered in the gangways, as if trying to find something to do. But there was nothing to be done, not yet.

Then, at kick-off, Manchester City made them wait some more. They won the toss and ordered Liverpool to swap ends with them, so they wouldn’t be playing towards the Kop in the second half. It seemed barely significant at the time. But as they trooped off the turf defeated and disgusted, their European adventure hanging by threads, it felt tempting to anoint it as the pivotal moment of the game. For it was a decisive acknowledgement by the visitors of Anfield’s power to stun and stir, to gird bodies and mess with heads.

The next half hour, it has to be said, passed in something of a blur. For City, for Liverpool, and probably for most of the people in the stadium, Liverpool’s astonishing opening burst will be one recalled not in moving images but a series of devastating stills. A steward giving a thumbs-up and a beaming smile to his mate in the next section as Mo Salah put a delirious Liverpool 1-0 up. The split-second just after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struck the ball from just outside the area, when for a moment it seemed like the stadium had fallen completely silent, not in anticipation but in puzzlement, for the ball had simply disappeared: only to reappear, 25 yards away, as a bulge in Ederson’s net.

Or the ball hanging in the air as City’s defenders stared at it like a dying sun, Sadio Mane advancing on it like the only man in the stadium who knew what was about to happen. Or the mass of red shirts by the corner flag as Liverpool celebrated again, and again, and again, City bickering amongst themselves in the centre circle with all the puny rage of fisherman arguing how best to push back the sea. Or Trent Alexander-Arnold taking Leroy Sane’s lunch money and surging up the right wing. Above all, it felt weird. It felt like watching somebody else’s scripted movie. It felt almost unearthly.

Jürgen Klopp is a man of faith, in more senses than one, and somehow he manages to produce more of these moments than anyone else. Look, I can see your arched brow at this point. I sense your starchy cynicism. I’m aware, even on the most elementary level, that football can’t simply be boiled down into a thick soup of emotion and belief and desire. I get that, I really do.

But equally, you can show me all the chalkboards and heatmaps on the internet, spit all your key performance metrics in my direction, blurt as many random Spanish words at me as you want, and you won’t get remotely close to explaining, to your satisfaction or mine, how Scotland’s Andy Robertson - a player who this time last season was getting very slowly relegated with Hull - can ski through the entire City team like the illegitimate offspring of Rivelino and Hermann Maier. You can’t tune into the unique footballing frequency that makes the best team in England (Europe?) look like amateurs without really seeming to do very much wrong at all. But that’s the very definition of faith: the substance of things hoped for, in the evidence of things not seen.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you think Liverpool’s first-half blitz was the result of their collective possession by some sort of supernatural orenda, or Nicolas Otamendi just being a bit flat-footed. Your belief isn’t the issue here. The point is that Liverpool believed, unflinchingly, unquestionably and with the zeal of the self-appointed chosen. “We have to change from doubters to believers,” Klopp announced when he first arrived at Anfield 30 short months ago, and in a sense those few words have encapsulated his reign to date: the inextinguishable idea that in the face of scepticism, economics, common sense and most of the available evidence, salvation is close at hand.

And yet as faith shakes, so can faith be shaken. The injury to Mo Salah deprived Liverpool of their holy trinity: their main goal threat, their leading creator and their most effective ball-winner. The introduction of Raheem Sterling as a second-half substitute brought out Anfield’s surly, petty, covetous side. The high press began to sag. At one point, James Milner gathered the ball on the edge of his own area and simply booted it as far away from him as possible. Rarely has a team 3-0 up looked so convinced of impending disaster.

How can Scotland’s Andy Robertson ski through the entire City team like the illegitimate offspring of Rivelino and Hermann Maier (Reuters)

Liverpool had returned to the earthly plane, and from here the view was far bleaker. Even as the referee’s whistle called time on act one of this quarter-final, over the next six days the clouds of doubt will rain what-ifs upon this Liverpool side and its adherents. What if Salah doesn’t recover in time? What if City nick an early goal at the Etihad next Tuesday? What if, somehow, Liverpool forget to forget: what if they remember their human fragilities and fallibilities and shed the cloak of invincibility that they wore here so proudly for half an hour?

It’s impossible to say what might happen in the second leg. Partly because these sorts of games depend so wildly on momentum. Partly because both sides have crunch derbies this weekend. But partly because neither of these two sides really have much muscle memory to go on. City have made one semi-final in six attempts. For Liverpool, it’s nine years since they got even this far; ten since their last semi-final; thirteen since Istanbul. They’ve got used to waiting around these parts. Even so, as they count down the days until their moment of grace, this wait will be particularly excruciating.

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