Rarely has a man looked so happy after a 4-2 defeat than Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp did on Wednesday night.
Despite what effectively amounted to the side’s first Champions League defeat this season, Klopp was positively beaming as he waved at the travelling Liverpool support. He knew, as well as they did, that the Reds are now one game away from greatness. One game away from the German adding his name to the pantheon of Kop greats that have lifted the famous trophy.
Paisley. Fagan. Benitez. Klopp?
The 7-6 aggregate scoreline tells one story, but the collective performances from both sides over the two legs tells another. Rome might be the holiest city in the world, but the only divine trinity on show was the one tearing through the Italians’ defence at Anfield last week.
Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah have been simply majestic this season, in all competitions but especially in the Champions League. They scored six of the seven against Roma, four of the five against Man City, and all five against Porto. They have now scored 29 goals between them in the competition this season – a new record – and there is a strong case to be made to consider them the best forward line in Europe right now, such is their scintillating form.
Every surging run from the trio appears ominous, every lightning burst of pace, every sight of goal – this is a frontline designed to torment and devastate at will, putting the fear into defenders that it the traumatic process will repeat itself over and over again over the course of the 90 minutes.
At the centre of it all, though, is Klopp himself. His methods have been questioned at various stages of his Liverpool tenure, but it’s a fundamental belief in his own coaching ability that brought the club to the edge of immortality. That sheer force of will, and the way it has been passed on to the players, is the stuff that championships are built on. Momentum is a powerful thing, and Liverpool have taken that sense of momentum and ran with it.
The German will still have his detractors, of course, because some men just want to watch the world burn, but what he has done in transforming the energy of this club, the players, the supporters, it’s invaluable. His main ambition from day one was to turn ‘doubters into believers’ – and it’s fair to say that he has achieved that now.
Is it perfect? Not at all, and yet that only adds to the spectacle. Whatever Liverpool do, they do it in full throttle. It would have been just like them to completely throw away the entirely of that lead in the final minutes of the Olimpico, and yet the shock factor would have been minimal. (Frankly, it seems more of a surprise right now that the full comeback didn’t happen.)
It’s an inexact science, and it’s batshit mental to try and follow, but it’s damn entertaining. Wednesday night might have been ridiculous on every conceivable level, but to understand Klopp’s Liverpool is to understand that it had to be this way.
That Liverpool could have this tie effectively dead and buried – twice – and still give Roma not just a sniff of progression, but a genuine hope, is the ultimate microcosm of this team, making trouble for themselves when the tie should be over.
The manner of conceding two late goals like that (in both legs, actually) brought up questions regarding the Liverpool defence. Giving Roma hope twice when the door should have been slammed in their faces twice will cause that. However, there is a danger of over-analyising what was a unique situation in the context of one tie and trying to apply it generally.
The final will be a different prospect to he events at the Olimpico. Liverpool lost the run of themselves after going so far ahead twice in the tie. That invites a certain type of pressure in itself, and it’s one that they almost certainly won’t face against Real Madrid.
Liverpool’s problems in defence at this moment in time come in the form of erosion rather than one big burst – Roma were only able to chip away at the Reds’ backline because they had no other option than to go for it. Realistically, the only way that the issue will be the same as it was against Roma is if they power into a quickfire 3-0 lead at some point.
Conversely, there have been some idle suggestions that Liverpool might look to sit back more against Real – but that’s illogical in the context of this team. First of all, they aren’t physically capable of doing that to any effective degree – and, more importantly, why would they try it? What evidence is there to suggest that Liverpool won’t absolutely just go for it in Kiev? Why change now?
24 hours is a long time in football, so it’s important to remember that Real’s defence was put under serious scrutiny after they defeated Bayern on Tuesday night. That hasn’t changed overnight. Liverpool’s front three should be just as confident as penetrating Real’s backline as Bayern were, if not more so.
And so, to try and squeeze one more timely pop culture reference in, Klopp’s Avengers now fight for the Infinity Gauntlet against the seemingly insurmountable Zinedine Thanos and his Black Order. The odds are against them, as they should be against a Champions League behemoth like Real Madrid, but just try and tell Klopp and the Liverpool fans singing well into the night in Rome on Wednesday night that they can’t realise their dreams in Kiev later this month.
It will be chaos. Anarchic, uncontrollable, beautiful chaos.