In the fifth of our series looking at the greatest moments of the sporting year, we recall how Liverpool overcame a 3-0 first-leg deficit against Barcelona to secure a place in the Champions League final with a 4-0 win at Anfield…
This story will begin as it ends, with the sight of Lionel Messi distraught at the final whistle. What happened in between was scarcely believable, but it concluded in history.
To find the origins of how Liverpool overcame Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final, you must go to the final minute of injury time in the first leg at the Nou Camp. Liverpool, trailing 3-0, had a corner and Jurgen Klopp implored goalkeeper Alisson to go forward.
Alisson, for some reason, checked his stride and gestured to Klopp he wanted to stay where he was on the halfway line. The implication of his decision was huge. Barcelona launched a counter-attack and would have had an empty goal to shoot at had the Brazilian been upfield.
Liverpool completed mission impossible to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League
Lionel Messi had his hands on his head after Barca squandered their three-goal advantage
Instead, Alisson was able to make an easy save from Ousmane Dembele after the France striker, who had been put through by Messi, fluffed his lines. Liverpool would have been dead in the water at 4-0 down and Messi knew it.
As Alisson cradled the ball and the game was brought to a halt, Messi beat the turf in anger.
‘I remember it because Jurgen, (coach) Peter Krawietz and me were discussing after they had made it 3-0 how important it was to get the away goal,’ Pep Lijnders, Liverpool’s assistant manager, told Sportsmail.
‘The emotions at that moment in time can cause problems. That save of Alisson is one of many decisive ones. During our Champions League campaign, he made a few match-winning saves. Some were more than that — they were cup-winning saves.’
Barcelona hit Liverpool on the break moments after Alisson decided not to go up for a corner
Ousmane Dembele (R) would have had an open goal if Alisson listened to boss Jurgen Klopp
If Dembele had have scored a fourth, Liverpool may never have got through to the final
Nobody, however, could appreciate the implications at the time. The headline that accompanied Martin Samuel’s Sportsmail match report after the first leg — ‘Messi leaves Klopp praying for a miracle’ — highlighted the scale of the task. Barcelona, essentially, were going to the final in Madrid.
The situation would become even more complicated when, four days before the second leg, Mohamed Salah was concussed at Newcastle, while Roberto Firmino’s groin injury showed no sign of recovering in time.
Klopp, though, is not someone who throws in the towel. On the morning of May 6, in his office at the Melwood training ground, a discussion between him and Lijnders was the catalyst for a dramatic change in mood among the technical staff.
‘Without Mo and Roberto, 0-3 as a starting point against Barcelona! So we were like: “No chance”,’ Lijnders said. ‘Then “yes…”, then “no chance”, then, finally: “Yes!” But how? After this meeting we believed we had a chance.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson (Wijnaldum 46min); Henderson, Fabinho, Milner; Shaqiri (Sturridge 90), Mane, Origi (Gomez 85)
Scorers: Origi 7, 79, Wijnaldum 54, 56
Booked: Matip, Fabinho
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; Vidal (Arthur 75), Busquets, Rakitic (Malcom 80); Messi, Suarez, Coutinho (Semedo 60)
Booked: Busquets, Rakitic, Semedo
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir
‘I know how strange it sounds now but I was convinced we would do it, as long if we played our way. If we could stop their counters and attack them with all we have.
‘There was no Plan B, it was just our plan with imagination. The passion and ambition of our players is from another planet.’
Klopp had media duties that afternoon. He spoke to a small group of press and during the 10 minutes, as he relayed a story about how Borussia Dortmund almost came back from an identical situation of being 3-0 down against Real Madrid in the 2014 quarter-finals, you could see his mood change.
Those involved in training 24 hours before the second leg remember it to be intense but another hurdle then emerged.
Vincent Kompany’s winning goal against Leicester had effectively ended the title race and Liverpool’s squad were dispirited when they reported to Melwood on game day.
The manager knew this, but for one man, who would become a hero, disappointment soon turned into fury. Klopp named the team and Gini Wijnaldum was volcanic when realising he wasn’t in the starting lineup.
‘I don’t think I have ever been as mad in my career,’ Wijnaldum told Sportsmail. ‘I was so angry, so, so angry! I ran straight inside, never spoke to anyone, never saw anyone. I got showered, went straight to the hotel. I had something to eat then I went straight to my room.
‘I remember the meeting in the hotel, I don’t remember exactly what was said because I was so mad. I literally couldn’t speak.’
Pep Lijnders (R) revealed they believed Liverpool could win after a meeting with Klopp
Wijnaldum might be unable to explain what happened at the hotel, but nobody else present has forgotten Klopp’s words.
Very calmly, he explained: ‘What you need to do tonight I would say is impossible. But because it is you, there is a chance.’
A seed had been planted in the head of Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s captain. ‘I thought to myself, hmm… Anfield: an early goal, the crowd? You know what. Maybe,’ he said.
Lijnders added: ‘Jurgen can sum up what will make the difference between winning and losing a game like no one else. He told the boys we needed to remain true to our principles. Motivation was not the key any more. It was about how, when, where and what.
‘And of course, the sentence that no team in world football is capable of changing this except you guys made it very personal and convincing. Anfield is a stadium where you can get overwhelmed — not only by the crowd but especially by our intense style.
‘Players or teams who didn’t play a night game at Anfield don’t know what’s going to happen. How can they? The ones who have understand there is no way to be really prepared for it. Two or three players in red chase you for 95 minutes. The crowd let you feel they are chasing you as well.’
Georginio Wijnaldum described one of his goals on the night as the best header of his life
The midfielder also admitted he was furious with Klopp for dropping him for the second leg
It may seem like being wise after the event, but those who are familiar with the stadium knew from the moment the teams emerged — greeted by a disorientating noise — that Liverpool were going to score in the first 10 minutes. Divock Origi popped up to oblige, pouncing to turn in the rebound from Henderson’s initial shot, and from then on Liverpool made the contest a frenzy.
The attention to detail was such that the ballboys, who were supplied by the Academy Under 14s, were strategically placed to keep play moving. ‘With the multi-ball format used in the Champions League, we knew we could — and must — improve,’ Lijnders said. ‘It’s all about details, creating small advantages.
‘We made videos for our ball- boys and we instructed them on game day. What’s important for us is the individual commitment with our ideas and our identity. Everyone is committed with that: the players, the kit manager, the physio, the team manager and the ballboys.’
Barcelona were still in control at 1-0 and had chances to make things safe, but all was not well. Philippe Coutinho, once a Liverpool idol, found it all too much. Luis Suarez, another former player, had postponed knee surgery to try to get his team through.
What they found to their cost was a team hell-bent on success. Andrew Robertson epitomised it all and told Suarez, in the most colourful Glaswegian vernacular, that he was not impressed with his efforts after a collision that led to Liverpool’s left back being substituted at half-time.
The implications were huge. Henderson had suffered damage to his knee but jumped on a spinning bike during the break to keep his legs moving and swallowed anti-inflammatories to get out for the second half. James Milner switched from midfield to defence and Wijnaldum was introduced.
Divock Origi turned in a quick corner from Trent Alexander-Arnold to complete the turnaround
Liverpool boss Klopp described it as ‘the most special game of football I have seen in my life’
The Liverpool players and staff celebrate in front of their supporters after their remarkable win
‘I’m not ever sure I listened to Klopp at half-time when I was coming on,’ said Wijnaldum. ‘Honestly! I was so angry, so wrapped up in my feelings. You know, I think it was actually the best thing to help me. I really think the anger helped.’
It helped that within 11 minutes he had scored twice and Liverpool were moving like a force of nature. We watched the goals back on an iPad and Wijnaldum rubbed his arms when seeing his header — which made it 3-3 on aggregate — fly in.
‘Goosebumps,’ he said. ‘The best header of my life. When I woke up the next morning, I said to myself: “Please don’t let that be a dream”. We did something unbelievable.’
From that point, only one outcome seemed possible. Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique tried to cajole their shell-shocked colleagues, but they had mentally disintegrated to the point that some wonderful ingenuity from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner allowed Origi to make it 4-0.
Everything came together to the point that Klopp has described it as, ‘the most special game of football I have seen in my life’, adding: ‘This game will never happen again — and it is ours.’
This was Anfield’s greatest night. As Liverpool’s victorious squad stood in front of The Kop, Messi was inconsolable. He was in tears in the tunnel and couldn’t even grieve in private, as he was selected for drug testing.
‘Think about it — Fabinho stopping all these incredible technical quick counters through the inside of the pitch, together with Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk,’ said Lijnders.
Mohamed Salah gave Liverpool the lead in the final from the penalty spot early on
Origi came off the bench to wrap up victory against Tottenham in Champions League final
Lijnders says the night they conquered Barcelona was worth the ears of the famous trophy
‘Trent doing what he did. Divock, Sadio Mane and Shaqiri playing as our front three, having such good games.
‘Gini coming on and having the biggest impact of the season as a sub. Hendo leading in his energetic and dedicated way. Milly playing one complete half as left back and making sure the team was always organised and lively.
‘I was screaming for 10 minutes after the game: “Only us! Only us!”‘
Lijnders is laughing now but his parting words provide the most clarity on the significance.
Liverpool went on to win the final, grinding out a 2-0 win over Tottenham at the Wanda Metropolitano, but for many the night they conquered Europe was the game before.
‘The way we reached the final, beating Barcelona, is worth the ears of the cup — maybe even more,’ he said.
‘Every time we lift the cup, taking these ears by the hand, we should think about this game and that performance.
‘We have to fight for a place again this year. We can — and we will.’