* I’m not in the business of disagreeing with my boss and claiming that Liverpool will win the match, but the least we can say is that we are set for a sensational Champions League final on May 26. If Real Madrid have the know-how, Liverpool have the freshness and vitality. If Zinedine Zidane’s team are European football’s great survivors this season, Jurgen Klopp has created its great entertainers.
Klopp’s own record in recent finals is not good, and Liverpool’s not perfect, but his team should be asking ‘why not?’ rather than ‘how?’. Momentum is such a powerful, unquantifiable force in sport, and Klopp has created a mentality that makes his team feel untouchable when they stream forward. They score in groups of twos and threes.
The most important principle – after hard work – of this Liverpool team is playing with a smile on your face. “Again today was amazing. It’s not hard to enjoy your football here, really,” said Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shortly before his injury. Give good players a dream to get behind and allow them to express themselves creatively without fear of public retribution from the manager, and watch them thrive.
For all Madrid’s savviness, few teams in world football can stop this Liverpool juggernaut when it gets into top gear; the key is pinning them back. They are an absorbing, versatile, attacking machine, but clearly not as well-oiled defensively. Watch them as a neutral as they play at double speed and you realise that you have been smiling for five whole minutes. On May in Kiev we might be smiling for the full 90. It could finish 7-6.
* We have been taught that pragmatism is the sensible approach to victory. Attacks win matches but defences win championships, or so the theory goes. Aesthetics are important in the age of football as entertainment, but victory must come first.
This season in the Champions League, Klopp has demonstrated that there is room in the middle of that Venn diagram. Liverpool have scored 40 goals in 12 Champions League matches, a truly astonishing return. We were told that the knock-out stages could lead to Klopp and Liverpool being found out, but the response was to score five times in the last 16, five in the quarter-final and seven in the semi-final. Only a group of players that truly believe in themselves and their manager can perform better as the opponent gets tougher and the stakes get higher.
“We’re here not to defend a three-goal lead but to win a football match,” said Klopp before the game, and why the hell shouldn’t he? Roma had not conceded a goal in the Champions League at home to Chelsea, Qarabag, Shakhtar or Barcelona, but they had not met a team with their tails quite as up as Liverpool. Had Liverpool sat back like Barcelona, they might have been knocked out.
Klopp knows well enough that attack is the best form of his defence. Having been warned about Roma’s potential to upset them at Anfield, Liverpool promptly scored five times in 33 minutes. Having been warned about Roma performing a miracle in the Olimpico, Liverpool scored twice more in the first 25 minutes to virtually end the tie and even leave wiggle room for the late wobble.
* Three of Klopp’s Premier League peers should be embarrassed by this progress: Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte. Each entered this competition with far more expensive and deeper squads than Liverpool and ones with far more Champions League experience too.
They left only with excuses: Guardiola was not happy with the officials, Conte was not happy with his own bosses and Mourinho was not happy with Sevilla’s football heritage. Only those who fall short require excuses.
For this Liverpool squad to have combined Champions League and domestic football for the first time in four years to become the first English club to reach the European Cup final in six is humiliating for them. Particularly given the attacking exuberance Klopp’s team has displayed.
* There is a myth that attacking merely means throwing players forward, creating chances and taking lots of shots. But it’s as much about what you do without the ball as with it, and do in your own half as much as the opposition’s. Without sounding too wanky, it’s about playing active football rather than passive football.
This is where Liverpool have improved most under Klopp. They were capable of breathtaking attacking play under Brendan Rodgers, but in too many games (including some big ones) were passive, particularly after falling behind.
Sky Sports got rid of their ‘Player Cam’, but the next time you watch Liverpool keep your eye on Roberto Firmino for five minutes. The amount of ground he covers is obviously ridiculous, but it is his ability to never be more than five yards away when an opposition player gets into trouble in his own half that astounds. It is no coincidence that teams defend badly against Liverpool – that phrasing fails to give them enough credit. Liverpool and Firmino make you defend badly.
It’s also why it went wrong after Ragnar Klavan’s introduction (more on that later). Liverpool switched from active to passive, and Roma sensed a sniff of a chance.
* Liverpool are not perfect, of course; far from it. Their defensive issues were never going to be solved solely by Virgil van Dijk’s arrival in January, and those close to him were at fault for goals on Wednesday evening.
And yet this was a strangely comfortable second leg, despite the final score on the night. Liverpool supporters who screamed and wailed during the second half as they implored the clock to quicken may not agree, but that is the inevitable result of the shared disbelief that their could reach the final. That disbelief will only disappear when flights to Kiev are investigated.
The reality is that Roma were at least three goals behind Liverpool in the tie between the 56th minute of the first leg and the 86th minute of the second, and Liverpool were four goals up during periods of both matches. They are only the second team in the Champions League era to score seven goals in a semi-final tie.
* One thing that does strike about Liverpool is that their first team is so easy to pick nowadays. While there might be question marks over who starts in defence for Manchester United or who starts in attack for Manchester City, Klopp’s team virtually picks itself.
That might say something about the lack of depth within Liverpool’s squad – okay, it definitely says something about the lack of depth in Liverpool’s squad – but also shows just how much certain players have stepped up recently.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have gone from squad players to must-picks in Liverpool’s biggest matches, while James Milner and Dejan Lovren have also improved dramatically over the last three months. Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino too are at the top of their game. Klopp has got his team peaking at the right time.
Had you been told in September that those first four players would start a Champions League semi-final second leg, you would have worried for Liverpool. For all the individual impact of Salah since his move, it is this collective improvement in the rest that has fuelled Liverpool’s European challenge.
* We were told that Roma would change tack from the first leg, and that proved true. Eusebio di Francesco switched shape to a flat-back four rather than playing with three central defenders, although he still gave Aleksandar Kolarov the licence to streak forward at will despite no longer being a wing-back.
More important was that Federico Fazio and Kostas Manolas sat far deeper than in the first leg, aiming to avoid the farcical ease of Liverpool winning possession and immediately being through on goal as we saw at Anfield.
That said, switching shape doesn’t eradicate the problem, merely changes it. Di Francesco’s worry in the first leg was that a deep defence would allow for gaps to appear between Roma’s defensive line and midfield trio, and that happened during the first half in Rome.
It allowed Salah, Sadio Mane and Firmino to drop deep and delight in the space. Central defenders don’t like fast attackers running at them with the ball anymore than they do chasing them towards their own goal.
* That said, Roma were far better than at Anfield. Liverpool did not make the same mistake as Barcelona of sitting back and allowing the Italians to stream forward, at least until the final 20 minutes, but Roma enjoyed spells of dominance almost from the off.
Di Francesco clearly instructed Kolarov to stay high and hope to create overlaps, and Alexander-Arnold regularly had two or three players to deal with. Patrik Schick and Stephan El Shaarawy both drifted left.
Kolarov has earned great praise for his performances in Serie A this season, but you really do have to watch him for a full 90 minutes to appreciate just how different he is to the 2016/17 Manchester City version – not being asked to do much defending helps.
The Serbian created three chances, got an assist and attempted a faintly ludicrous 14 crosses from left-back. He was one of the best players in a Champions League semi-final second leg. Wonders never cease.
* Roma’s biggest problem, accentuated by Liverpool’s pressing, was the mistakes that put the match out of their second-half reach. If they were beaten in the first leg by the flaws in the system, the second-leg comeback was thwarted by individual errors.
The first came from Radja Nainggolan, whose blind pass across the pitch allowed Firmino (again, always bloody there) to feed Mane for the opening goal. The second came 15 minutes later when Edin Dzeko headed back towards his own goal and Alessandro Florenzi was too slow to move out and play Georginio Wijnaldum offside.
When we talk of a side requiring perfection to complete a miracle comeback, we generally mean that they cannot afford to miss many chances. In fact, it is about finding the perfect mindset between focusing on attacking and taking your eye off the ball defensively. Roma paid the price for getting it slightly wrong.
* I’ve tried to be convinced by Loris Karius throughout his improvement, I really have. But there is something about his style that makes you suspect a mistake is never far away. Is he a very good goalkeeper who suffers lapses, or a decent goalkeeper who can only hide his flaws for most of the time?
In Rome, he did his best to give the away support kittens. His parry for Dzeko’s goal was weak and should have been pushed behind the goal or further wide, and I’m not sure what happened for Nainggolan’s driven shot. But it is his general decision-making that leaves you fraught. It reminds of another German Premier League goalkeeper in Jens Lehmann, usually safe but sometimes foolish. We all know what happened to Lehmann in the Champions League final.
* I don’t want to feel like I’m piling on him, but Lovren was also at fault for a Roma goal. Milner was the unfortunate scorer of the own goal, the ball cannoning off his face and past Karius like a two-man Chris Brass special, but it was Lovren’s doing.
It is a small thing, but as a young defender you are taught to clear the ball out to the sides rather than up the centre of the pitch.
That’s for three reasons:
1) It avoids you doing something like kicking the ball in the face of a teammate or opponent, who is more likely to be in the centre of the penalty area than out wide. And if they are out wide the ball is less likely to rebound into your own goal.
2) If you scuff the clearance, the worst that will happen is that a cross can come into the box, rather than it setting up an opponent for a shot in front of goal.
3) If you connect with the ball, it might send a winger or wide forward down the channel. They are more likely to find space down the wings than the centre of the pitch.
It did not matter, but Lovren will know that he stuffed up. Onwards and upwards.
* He may have left Manchester City a relative failure, usurped by Wilfried Bony, but Dzeko has transformed his reputation in Italy. He produced a magnificent centre forward display, keeping both Van Dijk and Lovren busy and scoring in his fifth consecutive Champions League game.
A few Real Madrid supporters were keen to point out that Dzeko has scored the same number of semi-finals goals this season as Lionel Messi in the last seven years. God bless those ludicrously partisan mad bastards.
* It has to be said that Roma should have been given a second-half penalty for handball on Alexander-Arnold. The notion of hands being in an ‘unnatural position’ conjures up bizarre images, but it basically means anywhere above the waist or out to the side. Alexander-Arnold’s hand was by his face when the ball hit it, and it was going in. He didn’t have the defence of protecting himself, either.
However, can we please stop the nonsense of blaming the referee for this type of decision? People screenshotting a slow-motion replay from television before asking on social media ‘how on earth was this not spotted?’ are answering their own question. The referee has one look.
* If Klopp learned one thing in Rome, it is that bringing on defenders for attackers when defending a lead can often be a false economy. Having provided a threat on the counter attack all night, Klavan came on for Mane after 75 minutes and Liverpool immediately sat deeper. That invited the pressure that led to Roma making the tie semi-interesting.
The strategy seems logical but rarely proves so. Not only does the extra central defender cause a team to go into their shell and invite pressure, it can also cause defensive unease due to the extra body and therefore change of shape. If Mane was indeed tired, Klopp might have been better bringing on Woodburn or Ings and telling them to harry and hassle like men possessed, even if they did it 40 yards from their own goal.
Roma had 24 shots on Wednesday evening. A quarter of those came between the 78th and 90th minute of the match, when Klavan was on to supposedly tighten things up. It doesn’t work.
* After the unpleasantness and violence against Liverpool supporters before the first leg, and the huge police presence in Rome before the game, it was good to hear the Stadio Olimpico at its raucous, throbbing best.
There have been many valid points made about Roma supporters, and last week was hardly a unique incident, but at times like these it is nice to be reminded that the vast majority of the club’s supporters are interested in creating a fervent atmosphere but know not to cross the line.
In fact, while it is farcical that Liverpool should have had to warn supporters not to walk to the stadium (and enough to call the club’s ability to host the match into question), Roma have reacted brilliantly to the attack on Sean Cox. James Pallotta’s statement was emotional and tough, and the decision to have the players train in ‘Forza Sean’ shirts on the eve of the game was a genuinely classy touch.
Of course it is a shame that either were needed, and the club and Italian football federation clearly have problems to solve, but Roma deserve to be defined by their response. For that, they should be applauded.
* Finally, a plea. Over the last 18 months, the Premier League has become the home of manufactured crisis. Assisted by a media desperate for traffic and so keen to find controversy where none exists, managers of every top-six club have faced serious questions about their future. Sometimes these questions have been justified, but sometimes not.
In August, Guardiola was told that he would have to change to meet the demands of the Premier League and could not hope to dominate as he had done before. He has made those assessments look very silly indeed.
In October, Klopp’s own job was being called into question after Liverpool went four games without a win. In January (yes, this January), The Sun ran the headline ‘Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp could be sacked if he doesn’t deliver trophies soon’.
“We are not the biggest difference from the top teams right now, even if it looks – from the points – a little bit different,” Klopp responded when asked in a press conference about being sacked.
“If I was to come in today as a new manager – this would be the situation – and everyone would give me time now to do the next step, that would be perfect. Unfortunately, if they sack me now, I don’t think there are a lot of managers who would do the job better than I do. I don’t think I’m perfect, but it’s quite difficult to find better options.” Such a statement of the bleeding obvious should not need to have been made.
Less than five months later, Klopp has his team in the Champions League final. We are very quick to accuse football clubs and their owners of lacking patience, but some making that accusation are themselves guilty of passing judgement too quickly.
Klopp spent seven years at Mainz and seven years at Dortmund; he intends to spend at least seven years at Anfield. In that time there will be peaks and troughs, but none need push Liverpool or their manager off course. Forget the manufactured crisis, and focus on the bigger picture: Klopp is overachieving, and so are Liverpool. Now bring on this magnificent final…