The Road to Kiev: Liverpool Edition

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UEFA Champions League Kiev 2018

Jack Hallows details Liverpool’s road to Kiev and how Jürgen Klopp’s men went from competition outsiders to Champions League finalists.

It was this time last year that we were sat nervously biting our nails as Liverpool took to Anfield for the final time in the 2016/17 Premier League season, needing a win against Middlesbrough to lock in Champions League football.

The Reds ultimately got the job done thanks to a belter from Gini Wijnaldum, a Coutinho special and a Lallana strike to put the icing on the cake and it felt like a major corner had been turned.

Liverpool were back where they belonged, back among Europe’s elite, well, pending the dreaded play-off round.

Heavy Metal Football: Liverpool FC 6 – 3 TSG 1899 Hoffenheim

Liverpool could’ve drawn a host of talented teams in the qualifying round.

Napoli, OGC Nice, CSKA Moscow and Sporting were all among the names that might’ve been pulled to try and thwart the Reds but ultimately, Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim were the force that stood in Klopp’s way.

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A nervy 2-1 first-leg victory away in Germany produced a fairly unspectacular 90 minutes with Simon Mignolet’s penalty save and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s stunning free-kick the highlights.

Liverpool were deserving of their win but Nagelsmann was having none of it, claiming that his Bundesliga outfit were “not in awe” of Anfield and would not be overcome by the occasion.

At half-time they were 3-1 down thanks to a double from Emre Can and Mo Salah’s first European goal for the club and with a 5-2 aggregate scoreline favouring the Reds, the tie was effectively over.

Onto the competition proper we marched and in some style too!

A Tough Start, Madness in Seville & Goals Galore: The Group Stages

If Liverpool’s qualification for the Champions League had come with a bang, the campaign itself started with a whimper.

The Reds surrendered a lead late on at Anfield in their group opener that allowed Sevilla to walk away with a point, before a poor performance in Russia saw the Reds sitting on just two points from their opening pair of games.

Cue fireworks.

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The Reds next four group games would see them score 20 goals and take 10 points from a possible 12, sealing the all important top spot in their group.

First up was a trip to Maribor in which the Reds’ potent attack exploded into life. Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino were both at the double, while Philippe Coutinho (remember him), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Trent Alexander-Arnold all got themselves on the score sheet in a 7-0 demolition of the Slovenian side.

Credit to them though, after that result they could’ve easily come to Anfield and crumbled, allowing a repeat scoreline but they toiled away well enough to frustrate the Reds until the second half. A deft finish from Salah prised open the gates before some lovely work play between Can and Milner doubled the lead. Daniel Sturridge would get his only Champions League goal for the club to date late on to add some deserved gloss to the scoreline.

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While this pair of results had people talking about the Reds’ European prospects in a positive light for what seemed the first time, Sevilla – through what can only be described as a second half capitulation – still managed to give Klopp’s men their biggest hiccup in the competition thus far.

Despite leading 3-0 at half-time thanks to some stellar set-piece work and one blistering counter-attack that of course, ended in one of those cheeky Roberto Firmino ‘no look’ finishes, nothing is ever that simple for this Reds squad. Alberto Moreno conspired to have a meltdown in the second half while the rest of Liverpool’s defence and midfield forgot how to play football.

From 3-0 to 3-3 at the final whistle. Amazing.

This result left Liverpool in need of three points to ensure top spot in the group and some corners of the media wondered how they’d react to that pressure.

The answer? A second 7-0 group stage victory.

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Spartak had proven themselves to be a resilient foe in Russia but to say they dissolved at Anfield would be an understatement. A Philippe Coutinho penalty – who was given the captain’s armband on the night – put the Reds’ ahead and they never looked back.

The Brazilian added another to his tally before his countryman Roberto Firmino prodded home from close range, taking a comfortable 3-0 lead into the half-time break. The commentary during the interval was as predictable as it was moronic. “We’ve seen Liverpool throw away three goal leads before!”

Not this time.

The second half consisted of a Sadio Mané fly-kick spectacular, Coutinho sealing his first and only Liverpool hat-trick, James Milner turning into prime Roberto Carlos at left-back and Mohamed Salah grabbing his customary goal.

Bring on the knockouts.

Mané Magic: Liverpool FC 5 – 0 FC Porto

I genuinely think that I love watching the knockout stages of the Champions League more than anything in football. Seeing some of the biggest players, clubs and managers in European football go head-to-head in some of the most incredible stadiums in the world is not only exciting but fascinating too.

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It also provides us as fans the opportunity to get a closer look at players that we don’t otherwise get the chance to watch and while they don’t always perform, the biggest names very rarely shy away from the challenge.

Porto aren’t Real Madrid. They’re no Barcelona and they’re certainly no Manchester City.

They are, however, a bloody good side who are bloody good at football. Especially on their own turf.

So it’s only natural that Liverpool showed up and twatted them 5-0, ending the tie before the second leg had even become more than a thought in the back of Klopp’s mind.

I was trying to decide what my favourite Liverpool games this season have been the other day and I have to say, this is up there. From Mané scoring his first hat-trick for the club to the sheer cheek and brilliance of Salah playing ‘keepy-ups’ over the goalkeeper to score his goal, to the defensive solidity on display.

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This was a mature, complete 90-minute performance that showcased everything that is so appetising about this Liverpool side. Pace, flair, a constricting press, intricate passing moves and clattering tackles were all on show in abundance. I didn’t see much of Klopp’s face during the broadcast I watched but I can bet he was smiling for much of the 90 minutes.

The second leg was a less entertaining affair, finishing 0-0 after both sides opted to rest players for upcoming league matches but that was all it needed to be.

A Battle of Wit, Tactics & Frantic Football: Liverpool FC 5 – 1 Manchester City

Anyone but Manchester City.

You’re lying if you said you wanted Liverpool to draw Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals. At this point in time they’d still only lost one Premier League fixture and with Real Madrid having knocked Paris Saint-Germain out of the tournament in emphatic fashion, were the favourites for European glory.

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Pep Guardiola, however, was rightfully wary of Klopp’s Reds.

On their day, their brand of high intensity, frantic and devastating football is enough to give any team in Europe problems and with Anfield standing behind their team, City were always going to have it tough.

Guardiola’s reservations aside, I don’t think anyone expected the eventual Premier League champions to have it so tough that they were 3-0 down within 30 minutes of the first-leg.

A trademark counter-attack saw Salah poke in the first from close range before Oxlade-Chamberlain’s thunderbolt doubled the advantage. By the time Sadio Mané rose to nod in the third, the visitors’ heads had dropped. A spotless team effort followed in the second half to ensure no away goals were shipped and Liverpool’s three goal advantage remained intact.

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The second-leg at the Etihad had me worried but confident at the same time. The previous visit to the Citizens’ home ground had ended in misery for the Reds but that seemed a result of shell-shock after Mané was sent off early in the game more than City brilliance.

Gabriel Jesus put Liverpool hearts in mouths in the opening minutes when he capitalised on a rare mistake from Virgil van Dijk but the Reds shored up their defences and kept the home side at bay until half-time. Klopp rallied the troops while elsewhere, Guardiola was sent to the stands for abusing the officials.

Whatever was said in the break worked.

Liverpool were re-energised, revitalised and looked to have a renewed sense of purpose and belief about their football in the second half. One Sadio Mané drive later and Mohamed Salah was dinking the ball into the back of Ederson’s net. The all important away-goal.

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Roberto Firmino put some gloss on the scoreline but the result was already sealed.

Liverpool were through to the semi-finals of Europe’s elite competition and Manchester City, English football’s ‘best hope’ of winning the competition, were not.

The Italian Job: Liverpool FC 7 – 6 AS Roma

You know, sometimes I’d just love it if Liverpool did things the ‘easy’ way.

When they were 5-0 up with 15 minutes remaining at Anfield in the first leg of their semi-final tie against Roma, I thought that finally, that was going to be the case. An absolute masterclass from Mo Salah against his former club had left the Italian side floundering and teetering right on the edge of elimination from the competition. They’d come back from a 4-1 deficit in the quarter finals against Barcelona but surely, five goals would be a task too far.

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Dzeko pulled one back for the visitors with ten remaining before a harsh penalty gave them a second away goal but by this point, I was still in a state of supreme confidence. We’d absolutely ruined the Italian side and this is a Liverpool team who had scored 16 goals in their five previous away fixtures in the competition.

Despite the combination of this statistic and going into half-time 2-1 to the good thanks to a first ever away goal for the club from Gini Wijnaldum and a counter-attack finished in fine fashion by Sadio Mané, Liverpool decided to just gift Roma at least a glimmer of hope.

Dzeko got his seemingly customary goal against the Reds before Radja Nainggolan sent an absolute thunderbolt in off Loris Karius’ post. The final kick of the game made it 7-6 to the Reds on aggregate as Nainggolan grabbed his second with another harshly given – to say the least – penalty.

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By this point, I will admit I was starting to sweat and the heart palpitations were just seconds away from kicking in until I heard the sweet, sweet sound of the final whistle.

We’d done it.

We were on our way to the Champions League final to take on Real Madrid in Kiev on May 26th.

It still feels absolutely incredible to say that. Bring on that final.

We’ve conquered all of Europe, we’re never gonna stop.

Paris down to Turkey we’ve won the fucking lot.

Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly, the Fields of Anfield Road.

We are loyal supporters and we come from Liverpool.

ALLEZ ALLEZ ALLEZ!

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