In football, success breeds envy. Having witnessed Liverpool’s glorious charge to the Champions League final, rival fans have consoled themselves by suggesting Jurgen Klopp’s men have ‘had it easy’.
The extent of the achievement, then, has been questioned. Compare Liverpool’s run to Kiev with that of their awaiting opponents, who have faced Paris Saint Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich (all the dominant force in their respective nations), and it perhaps seems the Reds have drawn a slightly fortunate lot.
But still the allegation that the Reds have been ‘lucky’ is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons. First, you can only beat what’s put in front of you – Liverpool aren’t somehow at fault for one or two favourable draws. Second, small but timely doses of good luck characterise every successful European campaign. And most of all, they had to overcome the side many dubbed the best on the continent.
So if someone puts Liverpool’s run down purely to luck, they’re wrong – plain and simple.
The qualifiers: No easy passage
Let’s start at the beginning as we look to refute this suggestion. Back in August, Liverpool were still two games away from even reaching the main draw, and they received the hardest tie of the bunch against Hoffenheim.
Of all the leagues in Europe, the Bundesliga is probably the best match for the holistic quality of the Premier League. Therefore, pitting the sides who finished fourth in the respective divisions against one another is, on paper at least, an even match-up.
In many ways, that tie set the tone for the festival of attacking football which was to follow. After a thoroughly professional job in Germany, the Reds put the tie beyond any measure of doubt with a quite awe-inspiring first-half blitz at Anfield. The visitors got a couple of goals themselves, but they were still dizzied by an emphatic statement of intent.
The group stage: More signs of what was to come
As mentioned above, you can only beat what’s put in front of you. Liverpool at one point were on the verge of facing Real and Borussia Dortmund at the first hurdle, only to be drawn instead against Sevilla, Spartak Moscow and Maribor. Fans could breathe a sigh of relief.
It wasn’t an easy group by any means, containing as it did European specialists (and the ultimate conquerors of Manchester United) Sevilla, but they were justifiably expected to progress with few problems.
And if things had been different, if Liverpool had been drawn in Spurs’ group, who’s to say they wouldn’t have come through with equivalent flying colours? Factor in the power of Anfield when the big boys roll into town and the struggles of a Dortmund side, who would later be dumped out of the Europa League at the hands of Red Bull Salzburg, and it’s certainly reasonable to assume Liverpool would have edged one or both of the two giants over six games.
Liverpool’s Champions League did not truly come alive until the knockout rounds, but by putting five past closest rivals Sevilla over the two games and winning 7-0 on two separate occasions, they indicated their fearsome attacking potential.
Round of 16: Complete domination
FC Porto certainly represented one of the weaker opponents available in the Round of 16, but it was the manner of the following victory which was truly spectacular.
The Portuguese outfit were taught what was, to all intents and purposes, a footballing lesson on their own turf. Their defence was completely and utterly torn apart and their own attack rarely had a look-in. They were left utterly shell-shocked (and they wouldn’t be the last).
Five away goals without reply meant the job was done, and Liverpool could afford to take their foot off the gas for the second leg.
Quarter-finals: The toughest test of all
Then came the greatest test of this side’s credentials – a clash with the free-scoring, sensationally dominant and surely irrepressible Manchester City. Having comprehensively out-classed all of their domestic rivals, City were being widely touted as European champions-elect.
The bookmakers’ and the pundits had Pep Guardiola’s men down as the favourites, but after 45 minutes at Anfield they looked like amateurs. The raucous atmosphere inside the Mecca of Champions League football energised the home heroes and cowed the uncharacteristically meek away side.
After a customary Mohamed Salah strike, an Oxlade-Chamberlain thunderbolt and a Sadio Mane header, Liverpool had one foot in the last four with only a quarter of the tie elapsed. Amidst a torrent of boos every time they had possession, City’s revered attack was blunted, ensuring a shutout – in itself a mighty achievement against a record-shattering team.
In sharp contrast, the first half of the second leg was virtually hell for Liverpool, sitting perilously deep and inviting unrelenting pressure, reluctant to get the ball down and attempt to play their way out of the hole their own timidity had landed them in.
City were furious when their second goal was wrongly disallowed, but their first had come after Raheem Sterling had shoved Virgil van Dijk to the ground (which must take some force) and they still had 45 minutes to get the two goals they needed to force extra-time. It was a test of character for the furious City, and they failed.
Indeed, the game changed in the second half, and soon Liverpool got the goal they needed. The first-leg hammering made an away goal decisive, and when Salah’s deft chip landed in the corner, it was clear that the latest conquest of the Egyptian king was complete.
Roberto Firmino then added the trademark gloss, completing a 5-1 aggregate triumph. Some questionable decisions aside, it was an alarmingly convincing victory. City fans have led the subsequent social media protests, but for 135 of the 180 minutes, they were second-best.
Meanwhile, Roma had pulled off one of the great UCL comebacks to topple a complacent Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico, setting up a semi-final clash with the Reds. Having vanquished Messi & co., they were without doubt worthy opponents.
But it's fair to say they were taken down a peg or two at Anfield. They tried to match their opponents rather than forming a textbook defensive blockade, and they paid the price for this disastrous naivety as the five-star Reds repeatedly scythed their way through and genuinely created the opportunities for double figures.
It was in fact so insatiable an attacking performance that supporters felt they had been hard done by when a late Roma rally made it interesting.
The reverse fixture was, in truth, over as soon as Georginio Wijnaldum nodded home the Liverpool second. But as Jordan Henderson admitted at full-time, they never do it the easy way. And so one of the craziest ties in recent Champions League memory eventually ended 7-6, though it was definitely more one-sided than it looked.
For the increasingly envious rival fans, an unspotted Alexander-Arnold handball and a supposedly premature final whistle represented sufficient grounds to further discredit the finalists.
Their memory was certainly selective. Roma were awarded two penalties, the first dubious and the second outright ludicrous, and their near-comeback was also boosted by a cataclysmically unfortunate own goal and a wonder strike from Radja Nainggolan which, nine times out of ten, would have flashed past the post.
Every test brilliantly passed
As the more qualified figures will tell you, this has been an incredible run. Any bid to underrate it is a cheap attempt to tarnish a series of extraordinary displays.
Yes, theoretically, the obstacles faced along the way could have been tougher, but Liverpool have passed every test presented to them with only the briefest moments of doubt.
Cup finalists require the ‘rub of the green’ – an inexplicable error from Sven Ulreich played a big part in ensuring Real’s progress – but the performances turned in by Liverpool, and the atmosphere of generated by the Anfield faithful, indicate that this was in all likelihood an unstoppable juggernaut.
Perhaps the best marker of the quality of this European campaign is that, according to the vast majority of respected pundits, Liverpool have proven that they have what it takes to match Real Madrid, winners of this competition for three of the last four years.
That is the reputation Liverpool have built.