It may seem hard to believe now, but there was a time when Liverpool were not part of Europe’s elite.
It was in the dim and distant past, about 21 months ago.
While they reached the Europa League final in 2015/16, when tackling a Champions League qualifier against Hoffenheim in the summer of 2017, the Reds hadn’t taken part in that competition for three years, and they hadn’t competed it in properly for about a decade.
Whatever the gaps between entries though, one thing remains a constant: the power of Anfield on a European night. Not that it bothered the German side’s young manager, Julian Nagelsmann.
Ahead of the match, Nagelsmann said “I don’t really make a difference between home or away matches, so I don’t really care [where the game is played]. I am not overly in awe of this club. We are good enough not to have to hide here.”
Oh, Julian. He wasn’t the first manager to make this mistake, nor the last.
Like virtually all of the others though, he had to admit after the match that the crowd “really got behind Liverpool and you know that’s how atmosphere builds here.”
I’m pleased to say I was part of the crowd that built the atmosphere that night. I don’t get to too many Liverpool matches, so it’s always a pleasure when I do.
Even though this game isn’t that long ago, it’s remarkable to see how much the team has changed in the intervening period. Simon Mignolet was first choice in goal, with Alberto Moreno at left-back. Virgil van Dijk and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hadn’t yet signed for the club, and indeed both would play against Liverpool during this season before they joined.
Perhaps most importantly, the first choice front three were not yet the feared attacking trident they’d shortly become. It was only the third match where Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah started together.
The trio had all got on the score sheet at Vicarage Road on the opening weekend, but this was arguably the first match where they showed glimpses of the devastating work they were capable of, and would go on to routinely dish up across the next two seasons.
The front three all scored and/or assisted a goal in this match, yet the goal that means so much to me from this game wasn’t scored by any of them. It wasn’t netted by a player who is still it at the club either.
It was scored by Emre Can.
The German wasn’t a prolific scorer for the Reds, bagging 14 goals in his 167 appearances for the club. This match was the only one where he scored more than once too, as he netted the opener and the third in a 4-2 win, either side of Mohamed Salah’s first Anfield goal.
But it was the quality of the move by the team which made Can’s second goal in this match so special. You have to remember, Liverpool had crawled over the line to finish fourth in 2016/17, and had often had to play ugly, battling football to get there. The last seven league matches of the campaign included hard fought wins at Stoke, West Brom and Watford.
So to see the Reds rip a decent Bundesliga side to shreds inside 20 minutes was a joy to behold, particularly as they sliced them apart with rapier-like precision for the third goal. Fifteen seconds after Mignolet had laid a simple pass off to Moreno, the ball was in the Hoffenheim net.
The Spaniard found Firmino near half way. He played a first touch pass to Gini Wijnaldum, who did likewise to take out three opposing players and put Mané clear. He back-heeled the ball to Firmino, and his excellent cross left Can with a tap in. The finish was simple, but the team move was sublime. It was so good, Jürgen Klopp turned to the main stand and bellowed “THAT IS FOOTBALL”.
One of the great joys of going to a football game – win, lose or draw – is everything that goes alongside it. The day of the match, the full experience. The chatting about the game with like-minded mates. On the drive up to Liverpool for this one, two fellow Kopites and I had a pretty standard pre-match chat.
“What’s the best Liverpool team goal you’ve seen in person, who was that flop Arsenal striker in ’98, and whatever happened to Leyton Maxwell?” I can’t remember now what our answers to the questions were, but I certainly know what I’d say in answer to the first one now.
It’s moments like that Emre Can goal which make supporting Liverpool such a special experience.
You’d have never have guessed that night that the Reds would reach the next two Champions League finals, but are you that surprised either? Extraordinary European performances are embedded in the fabric of the club.
One man who wouldn’t have been too surprised is Arsene Wenger. Speaking after Liverpool beat Barcelona 4-0 to reach the 2018/19 final, the former Arsenal manager said “In Europe they do well. Why? Anfield. [For a] home game, this is the most hated stadium in Europe in a return game. It is the only place you don’t want to go. The atmosphere – everything – is special there.”
No wonder there used to be ‘Arsene knows’ banners at the Emirates. He speaks the truth.
Julian Nagelsmann should’ve thought about Anfield more prior to his unsuccessful visit. But he is only one foolish manager in a line stretching back over 50 years.
*Odds are subject to change