As the red half of Merseyside gears up for the final week of a season that promises much, deep in the bowels of Melwood, Jurgen Klopp is chalking together the ultimate Gegenpress for the ultimate occasion: A Champions League final against Real Madrid! It’s not the first time the two clubs find themselves against each other in a European final; neither is it their first Paris finale. In 1981, Alan Kennedy settled an otherwise forgettable encounter in The Reds’ favour with a late winner.
Madrid would reverse the trick by easing to a 3-1 win in Kyiv in 2018. The bad blood from that particular encounter persists, although villain-in-chief Sergio Ramos will at most maintain a watching brief from his new vantage point as a Paris St. Germain player. Returning to the present, the two sides’ march to the finals could not be more contrasting. While we’ve covered Madrid’s helter-skelter push to Paris, today we look back on Liverpool’s progress.
Pooled with Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and FC Porto, Liverpool found themselves in a potential banana skin of a group. They would eventually make light work of it, winning all six of their ties. Kicking off in front of a raucous Anfield, the six-time champions welcomed AC Milan. In a breathless first half, Liverpool’s dominance came to naught as Milan walked into the break with a 1-2 lead. 1-0 up and cruising via a Tomori own goal, Rebic and Diaz would turn the game in Milan’s favour with two goals in the dying moments of the half. The home side stormed back with goals from Salah and captain Henderson in the second half, eventually edging a wild tie 3-2. Porto lay in wait next. But the Portuguese champions were brushed aside by a rampant Liverpool. With Mane, Salah (x2) and Firminho (x2) getting on the scoresheet, the Reds ran out 1-5 winners. As the CL circus rolled into The Metropolitano, Atletico Madrid and Liverpool squared off in round one of the group’s marquee clash. It did not disappoint! Klopp’s men started strong, racing to a 2-0 lead. However, Atleti’s returning hero Griezmann had other designs, scoring a brace to level scores going into halftime. The Frenchman would not see out the game -much to his and Simeone’s dismay-receiving a red card for a high boot on Firminho early in the second half. The visitors would seize this opportunity, sneaking a victory via a Mo Salah penalty.
In the return leg at Anfield, two delicious TAA assists helped Liverpool to a 2-0 win, ensuring qualification to the Round of 16 with two games to spare. A routine 2-0 win followed against Porto, lit up by Alcantara’s gravity-defying fizzer from outside the opposition box. Rounding up their group stage against the Rossoneri, Klopp fielded an experimental eleven at the San Siro, still capable of strolling to a 1-2 win. With six wins out of six, the Mersey din was only about to get louder.
Round of 16: Inter Milan
If the red and black of Milan had folded like a pack of cards against a relentless Liverpool, the Serie A champions hoped to be a sterner test for them. For much of the first leg at the San Siro, Inter went toe-to-toe with the English side, creating a bevvy of easily convertible chances. In fact, Dzeko would put the home side ahead, only for the linesman to deem the effort offside. The Reds’ superior fitness would eventually show as the game wore on. With tiredness creeping into the limbs of the Nerazzuris, Liverpool would score twice in the final 15 minutes, first off a Firminho header from a corner followed by Salah’s close-range finish, threaded through a sea of Inter legs.
With a two-goal deficit to overcome Inter’s chances of progressing were slim. Nonetheless, they would make a good fist of it! Halving the deficit through a Martinez top-corner stunner that spun across Alisson’s diving frame, the visitors had a foot in the door. Within a minute however, Alexis Sanchez would see red for a lunge on Fabinho, quashing all chances of a memorable comeback. Progress ensured, Anfield heaved a sigh of relief!
Having knocked out free-scoring Ajax in the previous round, Benfica would do their damnedest to rid themselves of Bela Guttman’s longstanding curse. However, Liverpool was as hungry as hyenas. Snuffing out the lights at the Da Luz, The Reds tore into Benfica, eventually coming out 1-3 winners. Goals from Konate, Mane and Porto Oldboy Luis Diaz ensured an easy win.
In contrast to the first leg, the second was a footballing punch-up in its finest traditions. Konate set the ball rolling by powering in a header off a Tsimikas corner. Goncalo Ramos would equalize with a well-taken finish from close range. Firminho would power the six-time European champions with a second-half double before Benfica stirred for the final time. Yaremchuk and Darwin Nunez scored twice within 10 minutes, raising hopes of an unlikely comeback. Nunez’s goal- sandwiched between two disallowed efforts- ensured a nervous end to a rip-roaring second leg. It would finish 3-3 on the night and 6-4 on aggregate. With the semi-finals beckoning for the home side, their supporters would file out of the famous old ground basking in the afterglow of a sparkling Champions League encounter.
Thick Mersey accents rarely wish for Yellow Submarines to sink, but in Villareal, they had the oddest of foes. A small club from a small city, the Spanish side had defied odds to knock out giants Juventus and Bayern Munich in previous rounds. Managed by an astute Unai Emery, the underdogs arrived on Liverpool’s shores quietly confident of an upset. ‘A perfect game’ was the recipe of choice for the Spaniards, themselves populated by a host of North London rejects, including their effervescent manager. It would not go to plan as Liverpool sprung wave upon wave of forward pressure, eventually breaking through via an Estupinan own goal. Attempting to keep out Henderson’s cross, the ball flicked off the Ecuadorian’s boot, looping over keeper Rulli’s raised arm and into the net. Two minutes later, Salah would feed Mane for Liverpool’s second. It would finish 2-0 at Anfield, setting up a second leg stacked heavily in favour of the Reds.
In front of a packed Madrigal, Boulaye Dia halved the deficit within three second-leg minutes. With the first half drawing to a close and noise levels reaching a crescendo, Francis Coquelin brought the house down, heading in Villareal’s second. At halftime, the score read 2-2 on aggregate. The tie was on every proverbial edge possible, and Klopp reached out for his trump card. Enter Luis Diaz for Diogo Jota. As Diaz went through the gears, driving Liverpool forward, Villareal caved. Fabinho would nudge the visitors ahead on aggregate, sneaking a shot through Rulli’s limbs. Diaz, who had twice come close, would soon ensure progression to the finals. Deftly timing his run, he would latch onto Trent’s precise cross, heading the ball through Rulli’s legs. Twice nutmegged, the Villareal keeper was enduring a torrid evening. He was at fault for Liverpool’s third as well. Dashing 40 yards from goal to intercept a loose ball, he was second to Mane who eased past him. Evading Lo Celso’s desperate challenge before slotting into an empty net, the Senegalese had sealed Liverpool’s third Champions League final appearance in five years.
If the final goes as per Klopp’s plan, we might as well have him crooning about a seventh!