The last round and Liverpool’s signature performance of a season which has seen more grit, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness than style and swagger seems ages ago.
Victory in the Allianz Arena over Bayern Munich set the European pulses racing again after a campaign dominated by intensity of an all-consuming quest to bring home the domestic prize.
Now though there’s genuine hope and talk of an incredible double, a feat achieved only twice in the Reds’ history. Back in August, for all the progress under Jurgen Klopp, there was widespread acknowledgement that the manager needs to win a trophy. Klopp would’ve been unfazed by such pressure, driven more by process and development, and that tunnel vision now sees him with the biggest two of the lot in his sights.
There’s something particularly magical about the quarter-final stage of the European Cup. In the competition’s previous guise this was the point where the tournament came out of winter’s cold storage; the clocks wound forward and the walk up to the ground for the first time bathed in the light and warmth of spring.
Just study the names visiting Anfield in the last eight and the club’s European heritage drips off the page – Cologne, St Etienne, Benfica, CSKA Sofia, Widzew Lodz, Austria Vienna, Roma, Juventus, PSV Eindhoven. Exotic as it gets – until you also remember Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. The point is that this is familiar territory for Liverpool fans, young and old alike. We’re blessed and don’t ever take it for granted.
FC Porto are back, wounded no doubt by their slaying in last year’s last sixteen. Their trip to Anfield was rendered meaningless by Liverpool’s first leg victory when Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane ran amok in Portugal. How do they approach this one? Restoration of pride will be at the forefront and maybe a first leg in Liverpool suits that objective best but, at the back of their minds will be a dream of the ultimate in revenge. Porto will be no pushovers – no team whose name is etched on the European Cup ever can be.
Liverpool though are in the rudest health. The win at Southampton did more than just reclaim top spot in the league. It did wonders for three players. Naby Keita’s woes melted away with his first goal – will we suddenly see the player we bought, like a new signing right at the business end of the season? Mo Salah was at pains to say an eight-game drought wasn’t bothering him, but when his top came off at St Mary’s it spoke of a mental release that could see the Egyptian King back at his eviscerating best.
Then there’s the case of Jordan Henderson. A Liverpool player for eight years, club captain but fighting a continual battle for acceptance. His goal on Friday night meant the world to him and that cupped ears celebration told its own story; one of professional pride and frustration in equal measure but undoubtedly a message to some Liverpool fans. He might as well have unveiled a t-shirt with the words “Get off my f*****g back.”
Siiiii sennnooooorrrr 🇧🇷 pic.twitter.com/tmOuiVVguk
— RedsBet (@Reds_Bet) April 5, 2019
The league title and European challenges are now intertwined. Five matches left in each. Ten games from greatness indeed. When Porto’s name came out of UEFA’s fishbowl alongside Liverpool it was a draw we’d have all handpicked but there’s no room for complacency. The Reds – Bayern notwithstanding – are at ease with first legs at home; last season’s destructions of City and Roma the perfect blueprint. The crowd also know the drill; frighten the opposition to death, give them not a moment’s peace, drive them to distraction.
The nights are getting light and the Reds are on the verge of something very special. My first European Cup quarter final was back in 1981 when Graeme Souness blasted Liverpool’s greatest ever hattrick past CSKA Sofia. I think I’ve been lucky enough to see another nine since – 82, 83, 84, 85, 2002, 05, 07, 08 and 18. These are only numbers, spanning 37 years, but when I walk up Sleepers Hill and past the King Harry pub towards Anfield tonight the air will smell just the same.
Liverpool FC – European Royalty.
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