* If any one player did not deserve to depart St Jakobs-Park with a runners-up medal on Wednesday night, it was Kolo Toure. With his contract expiring in the summer, the Ivorian could have done no more to persuade Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool that he can be of great worth for at least another season.
Ten years ago, Toure started in his first European final. His Arsenal side took the lead against La Liga opposition in the first half of the Champions League final in 2006, before they eventually caved in to sustained pressure. A decade later, the collapse was rather more pronounced and dramatic, but equally heartbreaking.
If Toure has played his final game in Liverpool red, he provided one final reminder that age is just a number. The 35-year-old was imperious in Basel, blocking more shots than any of his teammates (one), making more interceptions than all but Alberto Moreno (three), and making 17 clearances – seven more than any other player, and five more than Sevilla made altogether. His perfectly timed last-ditch tackle on Kevin Gameiro with the scores level at 1-1 epitomised a brilliant lion-hearted performance. It is a huge shame it was not matched by the trophy he craved. Whichever side he joins in the summer, they will be gaining the services of a wonderful professional who can still offer a great deal.
* Liverpool are purveyors of fast-paced, ‘heavy metal’ football under Klopp, yet they turned up late for their most important gig yet. Two-time reigning champions Sevilla are far more accustomed to this stage, and started the faster of the two sides by far. They boasted 57% of the possession after 15 minutes, with the excellent Ever Banega orchestrating proceedings. Liverpool were not shell-shocked, nor were they outclassed by their opponents, but it was quickly evident how relatively inexperienced this squad is on the big stage. Such naivety would be decisive later on; there will be plenty more on that later.
* One? Maybe. Two? Arguably. Three? Perhaps not. But regardless of the number, the common consensus is that Liverpool were unfortunate not to be awarded at least one penalty in the first half.
After 13 minutes came the first call. An excellent ball through from James Milner was controlled instantly by Roberto Firmino, who looked to break into the Sevilla area. He was met by Daniel Carrico – curiously once of Reading – and the Brazilian attempted to flick the ball beyond the defender. All eyes were on referee Jonas Eriksson as Firmino tumbled to the ground.
Be it for tripping the forward or for handling the ball in the same action, Carrico had undeniably committed a foul. Somehow, a penalty was not awarded.
On the half-hour mark, it was Adil Rami’s turn, with the Frenchman palming the ball out of play under pressure from Moreno. The decision from the officials? A goal-kick.
As the first half drew to a close, the hat-trick was complete. It would have been a harsh decision to adjudge Grzegorz Krychowiak guilty of handling the ball as he stooped to block an effort, but justice would have been served in a fashion. The following collapse was all their own doing, but Liverpool can feel aggrieved over such crucial decisions.
* On 34 minutes, BT Sport co-commentator Owen Hargreaves implored Liverpool to ensure Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge saw more of the ball. The club’s two brightest attacking talents had shared 22 touches between them by that stage, with just one shot on target. The Reds were in the ascendancy, but the Sevilla defence was largely untroubled.
On 35 minutes, the duo responded. From the right-hand side, the ball found Coutinho through great work from Roberto Firmino and James Milner. The Brazilian shuffled possession onto Sturridge, who stood around 16 yards out, surrounded by two defenders and with seemingly no route to goal. Within an instant, the ball had nestled in the corner of the goal, and Sturridge had already wheeled away in celebration.
— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) May 18, 2016
The pure brilliance of the finish cannot be understated. With the outside of his left boot, Sturridge applied requisite power and delicious curl to beat Sevilla keeper Soria, while leaving two defenders stranded. The England international had no backlift, and in everyone else’s view had no option but to turn back and release the ball. No-one expected the end result; no-one but Sturridge, of course.
* More has been written about the 26-year-old than any other player since Klopp was appointed in October. His injury record has been dissected, his relationship with the manager has been discussed, his suitability in this side has been debated and his work-rate and dedication has been doubted. Time and time again, Sturridge responds the only way he can.
Does Sturridge suit this Liverpool side perfectly? Not in the traditional sense. If you want a striker to tirelessly pressurise a defence, there are far more more suited to the role. But if you want a striker to score goals and raise the attacking performances of his teammates, few are better than the England international.
The oft-spoken criticism of Sturridge is that he is too greedy. When you produce as often as he does, greed is not an issue. Despite featuring in just 25 games in all competitions this season, he ends the campaign as his club’s top goalscorer with 12. Optimise his fitness, and he is among the top three strikers in the Premier League. Of course, that is far easier said than done.
* For the remainder of the first half, Liverpool were dominant. Sevilla started the quicker, but the Reds finished the opening period having almost lapped their opponent. Almost. Liverpool had eight shots to Sevilla’s one. Sevilla players were dispossessed ten times. The Spaniards completed just 63% of their first-half passes. Liverpool players were energetic, hell-bent on pressing the opposition into oblivion. They completed as many tackles as they committed fouls (11 each), and had opportunities to head into half-time with a three-goal lead or more.
The misconception is that Klopp sends his players out to simply run mindlessly, chasing the ball regardless of where it is and who has it. It is a gross misunderstanding. Sevilla were overrun by their opponents, and yet completed more kilometres in the first half (54.65 to 53.68). It is not necessarily about running the furthest or the longest at all times, but about picking the ideal moments.
In the first half, Liverpool perfected that tactic. As it happened, half-time came at the wrong time.
* Within 20 seconds of the restart, Sevilla provided the most emphatic of responses. For Liverpool, the main culprit in the concession of the equaliser was a predictable figure. Moreno’s poor header was bad enough; his absolute non-defending when faced with the on-rushing Mariano was unforgivable. Sevilla’s right-back sauntered past the Spaniard and squared for Kevin Gameiro, who applied a simple finish. Moreno forgot to lock the front door with the initial header, then turned back not to correct his mistake, but to open it himself for the trespasser.
Not content with playing the main antagonist for Gameiro once, Moreno stood stranded, marking thin air when the Frenchman found himself free in the penalty area on the hour mark. A point-blank save from Mignolet spared his blushes.
In the 23-year-old’s case, these were not his first mistakes. They certainly should be his last for Liverpool. Klopp has raised the performance levels of almost every member of this squad. Even Simon Mignolet has improved to an extent. Yet even the most talented of coaches would struggle to implement concentration, attentiveness and the basics of defending in Moreno’s game. Klopp’s summer planning has undoubtedly already begun, and there must be a red mark against the name of his left-back.
* Credit must be handed to Sevilla manager Unai Emery. At half-time, the Spaniards looked to be on the brink of being blown away by a free-flowing and confident Liverpool side. They created no chances in the first half, and conceded eight. Half-time came at the most inopportune time for the Reds, but provided much-needed respite for Emery’s side.
What a team talk. Within a minute of the restart they were on level terms; within 20 minutes they were ahead; within a further five they held a two-goal lead over their former tormentors. As lackadaisical and lacklustre as Liverpool were in the second half, Sevilla were electric. Emery deserves the utmost praise for lifting his fighters off the canvas at the nine-count.
* Central to the Spaniard’s success was one Ever Banega. The midfielder has been linked with the Premier League for a number of seasons now. On Wednesday evening, he provided evidence as to why.
While Sevilla struggled in the first half, one player notably kept their cool and continued unabated. In the second period, Banega then came into his own. The midfielder ended the game with the most touches (62), the joint-most completed dribbles (three), and more key passes than any player except for Nathaniel Clyne (two), as well as two tackles, seven crosses and the respective numbers of Emre Can and James Milner in his pocket. The Argentinean had 23 more touches than any Sevilla player, and is the most deserving recipient of a third consecutive Europa League winner’s medal. His talents would be well served in England.
* “They scored a goal that would win a million games – it was that good. Kevin Gameiro has scored lots of goals – he couldn’t have scored a goal like that,” Mark Lawrenson told BBC Sport. Perhaps not, but it was Gameiro who had the last laugh. After his acrobatic effort which narrowly evaded Mignolet’s goal represented Sevilla’s only first-half attempt, the Frenchman scored with a rather more simple second shot.
Before the game, BT Sport pundits Michael Owen and Steve McManaman analysed Gameiro’s previous seven goals in the tournament. Each were similar in their application: a clever run followed by a simple finish. This was no different. Coke will rightfully take the plaudits for his two goals, but Gameiro was excellent in the second half and provided the platform for his side’s comeback. He may not score goals the standard of Sturridge’s, but he does score them. With 25 in 45 games in all competitions, he can feel aggrieved at his absence from France’s Euro 2016 squad, particularly when Olivier Giroud (24 in 53) is present.
* As positive as Liverpool’s first few months under Klopp have been, there remains one glaring negative: the club cannot defend a lead.
Liverpool led a relegation-embattled Newcastle side 2-0 after 30 minutes at Anfield in the Premier League in April. They drew 2-2. Liverpool led Southampton 2-0 in the 63rd minute in March. They lost 3-2. Liverpool led a doomed Sunderland 2-0 at home after 81 minutes in February. They drew 2-2.
Here, they blew Sevilla away with an irresistible first-half attacking performance, but had just one goal to show for it. That does not excuse the collapse witnessed after Gameiro’s equaliser. With the game still in the balance and the scores level with over 40 minutes to play, the players seemed to simply give up. Their belief had been sapped, and the trophy that was within touching distance had slipped through their grasp. In the post-match words of the manager: “We saw it in the game after they scored the first goal. It changed.” Quite.
* Was the lack of leadership integral to Liverpool’s downfall? As much as Steven Gerrard’s departure in the summer was necessary, it has left the squad at Anfield without an on-field inspiration, a lifter of spirits, one who can lead by example. Toure tried to fulfil such a role, but was also tasked with attempting to keep the opposition at bay. Without a leader, Liverpool crumbled.
James Milner was captain for the evening. An experienced head, and a winner of trophies, but a leader? Milner was a follower at Manchester City; it is where he excels. He has been in unbelievable form in recent weeks, but is not a man you can look towards for motivation. Instead, he is just as susceptible to losing his temper as the rest of the players around him. Would Jordan Henderson have fared any better had injury not befallen him? It is doubtful. Klopp must seek to rectify the matter and sign a proven leader this summer.
* Start well. Hassle opponents. Gain possession. Create chances. Work tirelessly. Fade in second half. Be removed. Rinse. Repeat. That, ladies and gentleman, is what we call an ‘Adam Lallana’.
Just how infuriating is the Englishman? He encapsulated Liverpool’s first-half performance, putting in two crunching tackles and looking bright after a relatively slow start. His reverse pass to set up Sturridge’s first shot on target was sumptuous. Some compared his showing to that of former Klopp favourite Shinji Kagawa, and the similarities were certainly evident.
Lallana also encapsulated Liverpool’s second-half performance. The verve and vigour of the opening 45 minutes disappeared down the tunnel, and a nervous, tired shell emerged for the next 45. His 73rd-minute removal for Joe Allen was a mercy substitution, and it means he has now completed 90 minutes in just 28 of his 49 starts this season. Lallana is a willing disciple of Klopp’s testing tactics, but, to use the medical description, he suffers from ‘f***ing knackered-itis’ rather often.
* Another whose application cannot be doubted is Coutinho. And yet it still has not quite clicked for the Brazilian. His highlight reel is memorable and plentiful, and he is a fine talent when at the peak of his game, but few can be more conspicuous by their lack of influence on the field. In 90 minutes, Coutinho completed 28 passes, had one off-target shot and struggled to make an impact. The 23-year-old endures such games all too often, but is regularly rescued by one moment of long-range magic or a skilful run. In the biggest game of his club career, neither were forthcoming; he did not even complete a single dribble.
For a player nominated for the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year award in consecutive seasons, as well as one who won four end-of-season Liverpool awards earlier this month, Klopp is justified to expect much more of Coutinho. He is the supposed jewel in this Liverpool crown, but his anonymous performances are becoming a familiar frustration.
* UEFA can hardly have been surprised at the scenes ahead of the match. Having allocated just over 10,000 tickets to Liverpool fans for the final – the club’s first on the European stage in nine years – the predictable, and sad, conclusion was that a number of supporters found themselves in Sevilla’s section of the stadium. And yet it was the complete lack of segregation that led to the unfortunate sight of both sets of fans fighting before kick-off. Riot police were called in to calm matters, and UEFA’s frankly stupid decision to hold the final at a venue incapable of meeting the overwhelming demands of the fans of the participating clubs must be called into question.
* And so Liverpool’s first season under Jurgen Klopp draws to a close. It is a campaign which ends on a sour note, but promised so, so much. Defeats in two cup finals are bitter pills to swallow, and make the eighth-placed Premier League finish more difficult to defend. What is clear however is that, under Klopp, Liverpool can become great again.
“He’s infectious, he makes you smile with his behaviour on the sideline and he is a manager you would want to play for,” Steven Gerrard told BT Sport before the game.
“I think the fantastic thing is that he shares everything with everybody,” added Kenny Dalglish. “He shares the joy, the excitement, the passion with the players, and that’s transmitted to the fans. Everybody can relate to him. He’s fantastic at his job, but he doesn’t need to boast. He just does it. Everybody has totally responded to what he’s done. He’s been like a breath of fresh air to this club and that’s resulted in getting to this final.
“Everybody at Liverpool is really positive heading into next season with Jurgen in charge.”
It is the last line which provides the silver lining on the greyest of clouds for Liverpool fans. Klopp has been in charge just seven months, and yet it feels as though he has been at Anfield for a lifetime. Fifty-two games of fast, frenetic football, soundbites and hugs end with nothing tangible to show for it. Nothing but immense promise.
As most of the Premier League’s established elite head into next season amid managerial upheaval – Chelsea and Manchester City will appoint new bosses, Manchester United and Arsenal fans will hope to do the same – Liverpool are in an advantageous position. While the Klopp honeymoon is over, every sign points to a happy marriage.