FEATURE: Down But Never Out: Liverpool’s incredible rise to UCL Glory
As Liverpool lifted the UEFA Champions League Trophy on Saturday, I wondered how this team were Champions of Europe. At many times throughout Liverpool’s 2018-19 UCL campaign it seemed like they were all but guaranteed to be eliminated from the competition. This is how Liverpool won the UEFA Champions League.
Drawn into a group of death with Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain and Red Star Belgrade, Liverpool were forced to be challenged from the entry point of the competition. In the first game against PSG at Anfield, goals from Sturridge and Milner (two players who had lost their starting position from previous seasons) gave the Reds a 2-0 lead. However, PSG drew level with an 83rd minute goal from starlet Kylian Mbappé, almost ensuring that Liverpool would drop points in their first UCL game. Then came Roberto Firmino, who gave the Reds all three points with his 92nd minute winner.
A 1-0 loss to Napoli in Naples and a 4-0 home thrashing of Red Star was par for the course, but an embarrassing and frustrating 2-0 loss to Red Star and a 2-1 loss to PSG almost ended the Champions’ run in the group stages. If it weren’t for PSG and Napoli both dropping points in their 1-1 draw, Liverpool would not have had a chance to even make the knockout rounds. It all came down to the final matchday of the group stage: Liverpool needed a win against Napoli to advance. It would soon become another one of those famed European nights at Anfield, as a stunning Mohamed Salah solo goal (Salah muscled past one defender and faked out another before slotting past the ‘keeper at an absurd angle) and an Allison super save sent the Reds through to the knockout stage with a 1-0 win over Napoli.
To show just how close the eventual winners of the Champions League were to being eliminated in the group stages: Second Placed Liverpool and Third Placed Napoli were tied on points, head-to-head points, and goal difference. Liverpool only went through because they had scored two more goals throughout the first six matches.
Round of 16 and Quarter Finals:
Following a nail biting first round, the Reds were not gifted an easy draw in the Round of 16 like their Premier League competitors Manchester City were. They were instead drawn against German champions Bayern Munich. The matchup of two European heavyweights was seemingly a godsend to the neutral fan, but these fans had to wait for the second leg after the first leg in Anfield finished 0-0 in a very dull game.
The second leg would see Bayern get humbled on their own ground, as a 3-1 Liverpool win sent them through to the finals. A brace from Sadio Mane and a Virgil Van Dijk goal highlighted an excellent team performance in Germany that was a world away from their horrid away performances of the group stage.
Liverpool lucked out and were drawn against Porto in the quarter finals, arguably the worst team remaining in the tournament. Liverpool and Porto were familiar foes, as the two met in the Round of 16 last year (Liverpool won 5-0 on aggregate). Drawn as the home team once again, early goals from Naby Keïta and Roberto Firmino meant Liverpool had a 2-0 lead to defend going to Portugal.
The return leg saw an even bigger victory for the Reds, as a goal from each of the front three and Virgil Van Dijk saw Liverpool win 4-1 and 6-1 on aggregate.
Drawn away to Barcelona, Klopp and the Reds knew they were in for a struggle. This became evident after the first leg, as a Lionel Messi masterclass saw Barcelona win the first leg 3-0. This match ended Liverpool’s 19 game unbeaten run and left Liverpool’s Champions League hopes hanging by a thread once again. Despite the Reds controlling the game at times, a more clinical Barcelona took advantage. Luis Suarez’s first half opener was a double blow to Reds fans, but a seven minute Lionel Messi brace all but eliminated Liverpool from the competition.
Ousmane Dembélé’s shocking one on one miss in the 95th minute seemed unimportant in the moment, but it gave Liverpool just enough hope to give it their all in the second leg. Had Dembélé’ made it 4-0, Klopp very well might have fielded a second team to rest up for their Premier League hunt.
This was not the case though, and Liverpool were responsible for one of the greatest UCL nights ever in the second leg. An early goal from Divock Origi gave Liverpool and the fans the momentum, going into halftime losing 3-1. In a move that was crucial to their eventual success, Klopp subbed on Georginio Wijnaldum for the second half. Nobody could have predicted what he would do next, as the midfielder who was once relegated with Newcastle United scored a three minute brace against Barcelona of all teams to tie the aggregate score at 3-3. The Reds’ fans made Anfield a fortress, and they were likely bracing for extra-time. Liverpool starlet Trent Alexander-Arnold wouldn’t let the match go to extra-time though, as a moment of pure footballing genius assisted Liverpool’s winner. Alexander-Arnold took a quick corner that fell straight to hero Divock Origi, who made no mistake in smashing the ball home.
Just like that, Liverpool had reached the Champions League finals for successive years. This time they were ready to win though.
Playing against Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspurs, Liverpool could not have really asked for an easier opponent in a European final. Liverpool won a controversial penalty within 24 seconds after a Moussa Sissoko handball. Egypt’s pride Mohamed Salah made no mistake with the penalty, giving Hugo Lloris no chance to save his penalty. Salah became the first Egyptian to score in a UCL final, but the importance of the goal was multifaceted for Salah and his fans, whose memory of his injury in last year’s final was all too recent. Tottenham began pressing their attackers forward and took several shots on target in the last half-hour of regular time, leaving themselves open to counterattacks by Liverpool. Had it not been for the heroics of Allison Becker, Liverpool might have conceded. Following a corner kick in the 87th minute that was not cleared away by Spurs, Divock Origi struck from inside the penalty area and scored into the bottom right corner of the net. Liverpool won their sixth European Cup.
Tottenham outshot Liverpool, 16 to 14 total, 8 to 3 on target. Klopp’s team completed fewer passes in this game than in any other match the entire season. It was not a glorious match and was a poor reflection of English football. But that didn’t matter for Liverpool, who were now finally European Champions.
Their path to glory was challenging, and seemed it over at many points along the way. A team of misfits had achieved the greatest trophy in club football. Origi’s Liverpool career was almost over at many points, Wijnaldum was relegated from the Premier League just a few seasons ago, even Salah was a Chelsea reject. But it took these savvy signings and an even savvier manager to bring them together and make champions out of them.
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