This was Liverpool’s night, their impossible triumph, but over in Barcelona the focus will be on how their team have managed to find themselves eliminated from the Champions League by squandering a three-goal lead for the second consecutive season.
“It has happened again,” said Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde in reference to that quarter-final defeat to Roma just over a year ago but this was even more incredible, coming as it did after not even offering Liverpool the hope of an away goal from the first leg.
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The atmosphere at Anfield was astonishing, the performance of Jurgen Klopp’s players remarkable, but when Valverde talked afterwards of his team having fed the confidence of their opponents, he was not wrong. “All the goals are errors from someone,” he explained.
The list was long and while the names were distinguished, their mistakes were not. Jordi Alba surrendered possession in the build-up to the first goal and did it again for the second.
Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen might have stopped that one, while Ivan Rakitic, Clement Lenglet and Gerard Pique will all be wondering whether they could have attacked balls or tracked runners to prevent Liverpool completing their comeback.
Cracking under pressure
While Liverpool are into the final despite having lost four Champions League games this season alone, this was Barcelona’s first defeat in the competition since that night in Rome and perhaps that did not help them when things began to unravel.
In this most exacting of environments, Barca cracked under the pressure. There looked to be a lack of resolve, a fragility exposed. Suddenly, great players like Alba who had been so brilliant in the Camp Nou just six days earlier, were sluggish and rushed. They succumbed.
The problems appeared physical and mental, the panic manifesting itself in a number of ways. Barca remained patient in their pressing. They never lumped it into the box. But they did deviate from their method, losing shape completely in search of the late goal that could still have salvaged victory in the tie.
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In particular, they lost their width as the desperation grew, making it easier than it might have been for Liverpool to repel them. They crowded the space that Lionel Messi craved when they should have been stretching the game.
Just not Messi’s night
Such is the weight of expectation on Messi that many will feel he should carry the blame for failure. The memes about him being in the pocket of the Liverpool defence, a missing man at Anfield, have already begun. The mockery is inevitable. He is eulogised in victory and castigated in defeat. That is the way of it.
But the truth is that Messi did more than anyone else. Even aside from his two goals in the first leg, he forced two good saves from Alisson here, one in each half. Moreover, he laid on three clear chances for team-mates that all demanded further saves from the goalkeeper.
There was the driving run and well-timed pass to Philippe Coutinho, only to see the Brazilian shoot tamely at his compatriot. There was the wonderful through-ball to Alba that required Alisson to rush from his line and pull off a stunning save at close range.
In the second half, there was another expertly-timed pass to Luis Suarez that cut through the Liverpool defence, with the goalkeeper once again keeping out the shot. It was a body of work that really should have yielded more. “We got into their box in dangerous positions but we didn’t take those chances,” said Valverde.
Will it finish Valverde?
All of which leaves the Barcelona coach in an extraordinary position. Only Valencia stand in the way of a second consecutive domestic double since he took over in the summer of 2017. It is an achievement but an achievement somehow overshadowed by events in Europe.
As a result, he finds himself fielding questions about his future.
“We haven’t had time to think about those things,” he said immediately afterwards. “But here we are and the coach has to take responsibility. With a collapse of this nature, we will have a few horrible days ahead. Then we have to come out of it with time.”
Unfortunately for Valverde, it will take more than time to forget this result.
‘A historic failure’
The reaction in Spain was one of horror. Madrid-based newspaper Marca pulled no punches, splashing the words “historic failure” on their front page. They continued: “Barcelona’s defeat against Liverpool will be remembered like the other European disappointments of Seville, Athens and Rome, but surely this one will hurt even more.
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“This was a historic failure, from top to bottom. Liverpool were much better, but Barcelona were poor and the blame will be shared around.”
Their report continued: “The club will never forget the defeat of Anfield – much harder, more distressing and more painful than Rome. Because of the magnitude of the disaster, because of an improper image of a champion but also because of the accumulation of errors, some grotesque, both individual and collective.”
“Valverde could still win his second consecutive double, but the overriding feeling is one of huge disappointment,” he writes, “because after another year he has not been able to construct a team which is competitive in the Champions League. The continuity of the coach will inevitably be questioned.”
When is the Champions League final?
The Champions League final, the 27th in its current format and 64th of Europe’s elite-club competition, will take place on June 1, 2019.
Kick-off is at 8pm (BST), 9pm (CEST).
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