Liverpool into the Champions League final thanks to courageous brand of flawed but unflinching football

The nerve slipped a little in the second half but the ideals, still, were not compromised. This football is sometimes imprecise and sometimes incisive, but always a spectacle

Mark Critchley
Stadio Olimpico
Wednesday 02 May 2018 21:17
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No points for second best in Champions League final, says Klopp

Jürgen Klopp usually takes a scattergun approach to answering the questions of journalists, bombarding his interrogator with so many words that dictaphone batteries expire and translators need new notepads. Yet a telling line often lies among the mass of detail, and so it was before this semi-final.

“Football is as in life,” he told those who had dared to venture that Liverpool could relinquish their 5-2 first-leg lead over Roma and fail to reach the Kiev final. “If you are not ready to lose, you cannot win.”

Liverpool’s build-up to this second leg could only be described as difficult. The loss of Klopp’s assistant Zeljko Buvac was bizarre, the season-ending injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cruel, Saturday’s draw with Stoke City disappointing and the furore in Egypt over Mohamed Salah’s image rights unhelpful.

And then, cutting all those inconveniences down into insignificance, was the well-being of Sean Cox, the Liverpool supporter left in a medically-induced coma by Roman ultras last week. The 53-year-old’s condition more than cast a cloud over the occasion, lacing the streets around the Stadio Olimpico with a palpable menace.

Yet plenty of Cox’s counterparts – approximately 5,000 travelling supporters – took heed of the warnings, followed the safety instructions and still arrived in the Eternal City intent on backing a group of players they are gradually falling in love with. Hardly George Cross fare, but still a decision that required a degree of courage, and courage that deserved to be reflected out on the pitch.

In the circumstances it would have been understandable if Klopp had instructed his players to play tight, composed football and soak up the pressure that Roma would inevitably exert. Another team you may have heard of, one slightly more successful than Liverpool of late, tried to do just that in this stadium recently.

An overlooked aspect of Barcelona’s display in that remarkable quarter-final was that Ernesto Valverde took a passive, reactive, ‘have-what-we-hold’ approach, confident that the natural superiority of La Liga’s champions would be enough to overcome Serie A also-runs. Yet the talents at Barcelona’s disposal made their performance particularly craven, and it was dealt with a fair punishment.

Would Liverpool do the same? It would be naive to even suggest so. Klopp’s side were forced to play deep given the nature of the occasion but they accepted every opportunity to break, especially in a breathless first half. Even after taking a lead on the night inside nine minutes, there was no let-up. Oceans of space were afforded to a Roma team that needed goals and eventually found them, but not enough. Had Liverpool not sought to pounce in those opening stages, the Italians would be the ones travelling to Kiev.

Bravery was not only seen at the frontline, though, but also in the rear. There was Andy Robertson driving up the pitch in search of an assist then driving back down it with equal endeavour to prevent one. There was the slight Sadio Mané rising for high and hung-up aerial balls that he was never likely to win, usually being clattered underneath his marker, but the next time rising again. There was Roberto Firmino seeming like three Roberto Firminos across the breadth of the pitch any time his team-mates were on the back foot.

Liverpool's nerve slipped a little in the second half but the ideals were still not compromised. This is not football characterised by fear, doubling down on defensive strengths in order to mitigate offensive weakness. Nor is it total dominance, or an attempt at such scientific superiority that defeat becomes unthinkable, if no less inevitable. Instead, it is flawed but unflinching, sometimes imprecise and sometimes incisive, always a spectacle. If you are not ready to lose, you cannot win.

There was another telling Klopp line back in September, when it appeared as though the defensive problems that have dogged this side for years would spoil yet another season. “I never had one doubt about the system,” Klopp said at the time. Those defensive problems remain but have significantly receded, without an ounce of the devastating attacking potential lost.

There should be no doubt now that this system, with all its inherent flaws and all those moments it looks vulnerable to collapse, is a success. To paraphrase the late playwright Arnold Wesker, Klopp’s Liverpool have shown the courage to go after a utopia and survive their failures. It is that courage that has brought them within 90 minutes plus stoppage time of what this club, since 1977, has considered its utopia: lifting the European Cup.

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