Even now, as we approach the final day of the Premier League campaign, Tuesday night will not have sunken in for many Liverpool fans.
The realisation may not truly arrive until the Reds walk out onto the pitch of the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid for the Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur, nearly three weeks after their match with Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday.
How could Liverpool stop Barcelona?
Tuesday night’s task was deemed an impossible one. Barcelona, arguably the best team in the world, with one of, if not the greatest player ever to kick a football in Lionel Messi, came into the second leg at Anfield with a three goal advantage and no goals conceded. If Messi, Luis Suárez and co. had managed to find the back of the net on Tuesday then Liverpool would have needed to score five to progress to the final.
Perfection was required at both ends of the pitch, and Liverpool were not even able to summon all of their best players for the task. Mohamed Salah was ruled out after he was stretchered off against Newcastle United, while Roberto Firmino continues to be dogged by a muscle strain which has also ruled him out against Wolves.
Yet Barcelona, despite their semi-final advantage, quality and experience, had no idea what they were walking into as the power of Anfield awaited them, at its brilliant best.
Shaking the stadium’s foundations, the wall of noise from the start was intoxicating for the Liverpool players and sent the Barcelona players, for the majority of the game and certainly in the second half, into themselves, with their collapse against Roma in the Champions League last season almost certainly on their minds.
The Spanish giants believed they would react to their Roma nightmare by ensuring there would be no repeat against Liverpool, yet Anfield forced them to repeat rather than amend the mistakes they made in Italy.
No Salah? No Firmino? No problem
Even with their twelfth man roaring them on to a level rarely seen before, Liverpool required absolutely everything from all eleven players on the pitch, especially with no Salah or Firmino.
All of them delivered, both physically – hounding Barcelona from start to finish – and mentally, scoring four brilliant goals against a side full of Champions League and World Cup winners before holding on to the most unexpected advantage at the end.
The Reds even had to cope with the loss of Andrew Robertson at half-time after he was kicked by Suárez as part of their ongoing battle. Suarez may have won the battle, but Robertson and Liverpool won the war.
Georginio Wijnaldum replaced Robertson at half-time, with James Milner moving to left-back, and scored twice early in the second half to bring Liverpool to parity in the tie and create the momentum which was ultimately too much for Suarez and Barcelona.
Liverpool sharp, Barcelona Slow, encapsulated by fourth goal
Liverpool’s fourth goal, the goal which confirmed their place in the Champions League final, was a moment of genius by those in red, and a debacle for the Barcelona players in yellow.
Liverpool’s analysts had noticed how slow Barcelona were at times in reacting to quick set-pieces, and the club’s ball boys were instructed to feed balls to the Liverpool players quickly whenever they won a set-piece.
As a result, Trent Alexander-Arnold had a ball at his feet for a corner with just over ten minutes to go. Once the previous ball was out of play, this extraordinary young man began to walk away from the corner spot, then spun back and whipped in a low ball to Divock Origi, who finished smartly into the top corner before most of the Barcelona players had even realized what was happening.
Eventually, the time, place and consequence dawned on them – Liverpool had scored an outrageously original fourth goal and were leading on aggregate in this extraordinary semi-final. Liverpool were going through to the final and Barcelona were heading out.
Red heroes all over the pitch
You could single out every single Liverpool player on Tuesday night after they all performed to their maximum, with many going beyond even what was believed possible within their capabilities.
Wijnaldum certainly had a point to prove after Jürgen Klopp left the Dutch international on the bench, and he responded with the greatest 45 minutes of his Liverpool career.
Joël Matip was truly outstanding again, and right now is not just alongside Virgil van Dijk, probably the best defender in the world, in the team but in playing level as well.
Alisson made smart saves whenever he was called upon, with Suárez and Philippe Coutinho unable to convert chances as Anfield swallowed up the former Liverpool players. You would have thought the Barcelona duo could have helped the rest of their teammates prepare for the Liverpool cauldron. Even if they tried, it made no difference.
Milner and Jordan Henderson led by example again with terrific performances, terrorising Barcelona with their drive and energy which was replicated by the rest of their team-mates.
Fabinho was utterly outstanding as a shield for the back four, repeatedly coming up against Messi and fending the Argentinean off with the help of his team-mates around him, despite picking up an early yellow card.
Near the end of the game, the Brazilian even managed to produce one of those perfectly timed hooked tackles from behind on Messi that are fast becoming his trademark. Despite the risk of a red if he got the tackle wrong, Fabinho was brave and went for the tackle to protect the lead his team had so incredibly earned.
His bravery epitomised the heart of every Liverpool player on Tuesday night, who not only played for themselves but for the badge on their shirt and the fans watching, both at Anfield and across the world. Liverpool’s ‘This Means More’ tagline may be laughed off or criticised by rival fans but Klopp has certainly driven the meaning of the phrase for Liverpool into his players.
Liverpool’s squad depth makes the difference
Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri have been on the margins for large periods of this season but despite their lack of playing time both managed to perform against Barcelona.
Origi was too much to handle for the Barcelona players with the Belgian’s pace and strength, and Shaqiri, who did struggle at times with his passing, was able to conjure the assist for Wijnaldum’s second goal and Liverpool’s third on the night. Origi must enjoy the comebacks, having played a major role in Liverpool’s Europa League comeback against Borussia Dortmund three years ago.
Sadio Mané also stepped up as the only member of Liverpool’s superstar attacking trio available, dragging Barcelona defenders all over the pitch with Origi and producing a devastating performance, even if he was not directly involved in the goals.
Finally, Trent Alexander-Arnold made up for missing a start in the Nou Camp last week with a wonderful display of quality and calmness, completely defying his young age.
His quick thinking and originality for the fourth goal, given the context and situation of a Champions League semi-final, was genius but he was fantastic throughout the match, supplying Liverpool’s second goal with a pass which required patience, perspective and awareness, all gratefully received by Wijnaldum.
Sunday: Surely Not?
So, one miracle down for Liverpool, can they inspire another on Sunday?
Wolves are a great side with a superb record against the Premier League’s top six, having wrapped up the ‘best of the rest’ tag themselves by finishing seventh. They will test Liverpool but, even with their aches and pains, those Liverpool players will have too much confidence, belief and momentum to be stopped.
The question is whether Brighton can do anything against the might of Manchester City to present Liverpool with the opportunity to win their first league title in twenty-nine years.
This week has been dramatic enough for football in general, let alone Liverpool. Vincent Kompany’s potentially Premier League-winning goal, Tottenham’s own incredible Champions League comeback and the Europa League action has already created one of the most special weeks in football’s recent history.
If history can be written again, one more time this week, in Liverpool’s favour, then it could go down as the greatest week in the club’s history.
After Tuesday, anything is possible – and Madrid awaits regardless.