Football really is a communitarian’s game. The submission of the individual to the collective, to belong to a tribe, to a team, is what defines the game. For all that money and individualism threatens the sport, sometimes emotion trumps logic and wealth. Hunger and grit beats talent not baked in with hard work.
And sometimes, nothing embodies the essence of collectivism and heart better than Liverpool on a European night at Anfield. The human spectacle, the emotions, it was too much for Barcelona and Lionel Messi. His legend has graced the game for years but Anfield’s history and tradition for European nights have graced it for decades. Against Liverpool, he succumbed to it, engulfed in mesmeric brilliance of a sea of scarves, flags, hymns and souls that pounded the stadium with noise.
Belief in victory is rooted in the years of historic results that have taken place in this famous, old stadium. St Etienne, Olympiacos, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, and now Barcelona. This was arguably their greatest comeback, their greatest night at Anfield. The odds were stacked against them after a 3-0 defeat in the first leg when they had outplayed Barcelona for long spells but found Messi the greatest assassin in the game. Here, they were without two thirds of their deadly attacking trident, Roberto Firmino and Mohammed Salah ruled out through injury.
It didn’t matter. Liverpool got an early goal through Divock Origi, and for a brief moment, a red storm surged around Barcelona. The visitors were unsettled, harassed and harried, besieged by a team that towered over them in every way possible. Klopp said later they played with the heart of giants, and so it proved. Anfield can do this sometimes, where the feverish noise coupled with the weight of history can create a sense of destiny, spurring the home side on and strangling opponents in fear. Pressure never always materialised in way of clear chances, but Liverpool drove into Barcelona. The gegenpress, the art of reclaiming possession in the moment it is lost, requires electricity and energy both on the pitch and in the stands. Here, they got it. They always were. To a man, they were superb. The midfield functioned as a hive, buzzing relentlessly, swarming over their rivals, physically dominant. Jordan Henderson was instrumental, liberated in his new attacking role and it was his forward surge that created the first goal. The full-backs screeched up the pitch all night long. In Sadio Mane, they had someone who never stopped running, his pace unsettling Barcelona throughout. Even as he tired, he still ran, with the ball, taking Liverpool forward, injecting new dimensions in the game. The noise grew every time Liverpool stole possession and drove forward. The visitors shrank at times. The style of Liverpool’s play, requiring exhausting yet inspiring levels of collectivism, heart and industry, naturally coaxes passion out of the fans. Such kind of football was made for nights like this.
Barcelona briefly recovered, slowing the tempo, looking to Messi. He was quiet but with one drop of the shoulder and shift of the body he springs away from all. Here he had chances and created them, at the heart of an ominous counterattacking display from the visitors.
Back came Liverpool. The noise whipped up even more. They were now attacking the Kop end in the second-half. They scored twice in a flash through Gini Wijnaldum. Parity sought and achieved within the hour, the impossible made possible by a team with an indomitable spirit. And then, in a night soaked in emotions, passion and intensity, a moment of ruthless ingenuity by Trent Alexander-Arnold to find Origi. Liverpool led, and hung on.
The wild, frantic, joyous scenes at the end is a reminder of what football can be. Moments like this should be frozen in time, remembered as flashbacks to an age when the game was built on a close connection between supporters and the club. In recent times, we’ve had football become more commercialised. There are so many criticisms to be made, of the astonishing salaries, the match-day tickets, TV deals, the proliferation of sponsorship deals, agents’ fees, the manner in which clubs like Manchester City and PSG are used as PR for regimes with endless abuses of human rights.
Some things, however, remind us of the good in the game. European nights at Anfield are just that. They rolled back Barcelona’s wealth, constellation of gifted magicians, and revealed that sometimes a combination of solidarity, heart, intensity and aggression can win it all. Football brings people together, creates a sense of identity through the unity, a place of belonging, anchored in its community, no matter what the times. We saw it with the World Cup in 2018 when England, fractured by Brexit, briefly found something that could knit them together as a society. This is how it is for Klopp’s team. Liverpool’s magic is rooted in its community, in its city. The power of localism, of being from a city utterly impoverished by austerity, makes the European nights more special. The club belongs to the city of Liverpool, not the world. It feeds into these special nights when the world comes to see the city’s greatest and proudest export. Jurgen Klopp has understood this, both in where he has managed but in his tactics that evokes these red-hot feelings. Some of the most special football teams, are those that have this deep symbiotic bond with their supporters. And it can make all the difference. The effect of Anfield is mocked at, but would this comeback have happened if the Barcelona players did not fear the legend of Anfield?
Barcelona had the better players. They had the greatest player. But by the end of the night, Messi became the latest victim of Liverpool’s legendary European nights at Anfield.