Writing articles prior to matches is a tough business.
No matter how much research you do, how many statistics you consider, football contains so many random factors that you can’t possibly hope to be correct every time.
Prior to the first leg of the Champions League semi-final between Barcelona and Liverpool, I noted a few mid-table La Liga teams had mustered several clear-cut chances at Camp Nou this season, so why couldn’t Liverpool?
And in fairness I was correct. Sadio Mané, James Milner and Mohamed Salah all had opportunities which Opta classed as being big chances. Had even one of them scored – and particularly either of the first two, as the Reds were only one goal down at the time – then Liverpool would have a far better chance of reaching the final than they do now.
As it is, the odds are stacked firmly against them. That would’ve been the case anyway, but injuries to Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have obviously not helped their cause.
It’s not like we can look to the club’s history to inspire us.
THE REDS’ RECORD AFTER EURO THREE GOAL DEFEATS
Thankfully three goal defeats have been rare for Liverpool in European football, with their loss in Spain only their seventh ever. Leave aside a Champions League group stage loss to Real Madrid in 2014/15, plus second leg defeats to Inter Milan and Dinamo Tbilisi under Shankly and Paisley respectively, and the Reds have three previous heavy first leg defeats on their record sheet.
Powered by a young Johan Cruyff, Ajax won a fogbound match 5-1 in Amsterdam in 1966. Liverpool could only manage a 2-2 draw in the return at Anfield, to suffer a hefty aggregate defeat.
The Reds thankfully then waited 31 years for a first leg trouncing in Europe, only for two to come along almost at once. In 1997, Liverpool lost 3-0 away to Paris Saint-Germain, in the semi-final of the now defunct Cup Winners Cup, and then six months later another French side (Strasbourg) repeated the trick. In both instances, the Reds responded with a 2-0 win at Anfield to get agonisingly close to saving the tie, but fell short.
If we look at Champions League knock-out ties from the last decade and a half, we can see that a 2-0 home win is also the best any side has managed after losing 3-0 away from home in the first leg. And which manager was in charge of that team who almost recovered?
Jürgen Norbert Klopp.
In 2014, his Dortmund side lost 3-0 at the Bernabeu in a Champions League quarter-final. Back on home turf they raced into a 2-0 first half lead, albeit Angel di Maria missed a penalty.
Midway through the second half, Henrikh Mkhitaryan hit the post from a clear-cut chance, leaving Real Madrid to survive and eventually go on and lift the trophy. Last Wednesday was not the first time that high quality chances have gone begging to cost a Klopp team in Europe.
Well thank the lord! 😅 pic.twitter.com/dUhQrW8vgR
— RedsBet (@Reds_Bet) May 4, 2019
A GOAL TOO FAR?
It’s not that being three goals down after the first leg of a semi-final hasn’t ever been overturned in Europe’s premier club competition, it’s just incredibly rare. In 1971, Panathinaikos lost 4-1 to Red Star Belgrade before winning 3-0 at home to reach the final.
Fifteen years later, Terry Venables’ Barcelona lost 3-0 in Sweden to Gothenburg, before matching that score at Camp Nou and winning on penalties. Let’s ignore that in both of these examples the team who turned around a three goal deficit went on to lose the final, and focus upon the fact they got through.
And let’s also focus on the seeds of a new trend in European competition, namely that what was once considered impossible is starting to happen more often.
There have only been three knockout ties in the Champions League in which a team has come from at least three goals down to get through. But two of them have occurred within the last three seasons.
In 2017, PSG beat Barcelona 4-0 before somehow contriving to lose 6-1 in the return match. Twelve months later, Barca themselves beat Roma 4-1 but were beaten 3-0 in the Italian capital to exit the competition.
ARE UNITED OUR INSPIRATION?
And while it was a different score line from which to recover, don’t forget what happened earlier this season. No team had ever progressed from a Champions League knockout tie after losing the first leg by at least two goals at home, but Manchester United put that to bed when they eliminated PSG.
At a time when European football seems as predictable as ever when it comes to the same sides winning the big leagues most seasons, it’s in the continental competitions where unlikely yet actual outcomes seem to lurk.
It’s incredibly unlikely Liverpool will reach the final in Madrid, but recent history shows it’s perhaps more likely than it may have ever been before.
Predictions and previews are getting harder to write by the year.
*Odds are subject to change