Liverpool vs Barcelona: Yet another reminder of the changing psychology of Champions League football

The fantastical has now become a frequent feature within elite European football and points to an emerging new trend in the game

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Wednesday 08 May 2019 16:12
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In the Barcelona dressing room “the scene was like a funeral”. The silence was only disrupted by the sound of sobbing, most notably from Lionel Messi. One coach’s attempt to look for explanations was met with blank looks

In the Liverpool dressing room the scene was like a carnival. The dancing was only disrupted by players like Trent Alexander-Arnold suddenly bowing their head to their hands, as if overcome by what they’d just done.

Extremely different reactions from the most extreme of dramas – the sort of which have become the new norm for the Champions League. If recent trends are to go by, previously staggering comebacks are now to be expected in the later stages of the competition.

This was the sixth second-leg comeback from two goals down or more since the start of 2017. That is as many as in the 22 years of Champions League football before that.

There have similarly been three comebacks from three goals or more in the last two-and-a-half years. That is again as many as in 31 years of the competition before that.

The frequency of such drastic transformations in these ties thereby represents a drastic change in history, but not just in terms of results. They have transformed the entire feel of the Champions League.

It isn’t too long ago that a 2-0 lead felt almost insurmountable, precisely because one of the elements that elevated European football was the ability of the top teams to lock games down, to see them out to victory. The abiding image is of Serie A sides, or a strutting Steffen Effenberg, keeping the opposition at bay.

Even the concession of a goal in such circumstances felt little more than a consolation, a glimmer of hope.

No longer. Such second-leg goals instead provoke a visible change in matches and the mindsets of both teams. One is invigorated, the other seemingly incapacitated.

Such psychology alone is fascinating, and could start to explain how the fantastical has become so frequent.

Barcelona themselves are someway responsible for instigating this.

Their 6-1 win from 4-0 down against Paris Saint-Germain remains the biggest comeback in European Cup history, and was also thereby the big bang in terms of such recoveries. It gave other teams a tangible example of what was possible, but also distilled a spirit of abandon and chaos in the competition; that the previously improbable was now probable.

After all, none of this is to even include how Juventus took Real Madrid to within a penalty of such a recovery last season, or how Roma took Liverpool to within a goal.

There’s an element of psychological contagion here, in the same way that certain types of goals – like Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s scorpion kick two years ago – suddenly become replicated because they’re front and present in players’ minds.

This partly explains how even a side as accomplished as this Barcelona one can get so panicked at conceding a second-leg goal to make it 3-1. Anxiety afflicts them in a way it never would if a second-half goal made it 3-1 in a single 90-minute game, which is in itself remarkable and speaks to the psychology of it all.

Liverpool's Anfield 'miracle' is the latest indicator of the Champions League's changing psychology 

Players like Gerard Pique have spoken about how you can sense the change. Everyone else can see it.

This is a mental process only further exacerbated by the modern tactical evolution of the game. There isn’t just a spirit of abandon, but an approach of abandon. Attacking football reigns. Goal averages have shot up since 2008, to around three a match. Games cannot be locked down in the same way, even if teams try.

The very pattern of matches thereby favours the side that needs the attack. Meetings are open, just as the chasing team needs them to be.

In this sense, it is little wonder that chaos now rules supreme.

The momentum is all going one way – as are a number of other secondary factors. Changes in the laws of the game, like with offside and set-piece defending, further favour attackers. Changes to the economic distribution of the game mean the wealthiest sides are less used to stronger challenges, or having big leads properly tested.

That was so evident at Anfield. Barcelona couldn’t cope.

It all means that such comebacks should probably no longer be described as “miracles”, since they’ve genuinely become too mundane.

They doesn’t mean they aren’t still the extremes of entertainment and drama. Extremity, however, is now what the Champions League is all about. It feels like it’s going to be a long time since we come back from that.

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