This is the match that now potentially defines Liverpool’s season.
A season brim full of excellence, one in which club records have tumbled, a season which has already etched vivid memories, but one that could end in devastation. It would be beyond cruel to see this Liverpool team end up undecorated but the gut feel still is that it won’t.
Thank heavens for the European Cup.
All season long we’ve obsessed over that flaming Premier League title, the ending of torturous 29-year wait, to reach the Holy Grail and connect the present with the past. It can still happen, but the likeliest outcome is that a mammoth points tally won’t be enough. Since we last won silverware in 2012, we’ve lost them all; the FA Cup to Chelsea, the league championship and the League Cup to Manchester City, the Europa League to Seville and the European Cup to Real Madrid.
All so very Liverpool, according to the critics and the more morose among our fans.
To end this league season as runners-up would crown us as the nearly men, in the most mitigating but painful circumstances. But it would also be absolutely typical Liverpool to waltz off instead with the European Cup – the trophy that is the bedrock of our reputation as a football club – and that should never be considered a consolation prize.
Barcelona stand in our way for now, with Ajax or Spurs beyond that.
Barcelona are probably the biggest club in the world. They’ve always been massive, by virtue of them representing autonomous Catalunya; effectively a national team. The Camp Nou is the melting pot of a separatist political identity but the vast arena has been graced by the greats of the game; where Johann Cruyff and Diego Maradona strutted their stuff before the club went into overdrive as a trophy-winning machine.
Liverpool had four European Cups on the honours board before Barcelona broke their duck in 1992 against Sampdoria at Wembley.
We go there as equals with five each to our respective names and a head-to-head record in favour of Liverpool that will motivate and prey on Barca’s minds in equal measure.
The Reds are the only English club to have won at the Nou Camp – twice.
John Toshack’s solitary, winning goal in the 1976 UEFA Cup semi-final brought cushions raining down from the stands in disgust; and in the 2007 Champions League Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise put their infamous golf club spat aside to both score in a 2-1 win. In 2001 a dour goalless draw in Spain set up an Anfield clincher en route to Dortmund and the treble.
Despite historical precedents, Barcelona enter the tie as favourites, a consequence of the twin prowess of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. With 31 and 45 goals respectively in all competitions, neither are showing signs of advancing years and present the biggest test the Liverpool defence has faced all season.
In the same breath that threat is tantalising and terrifying, but the same goes for a Barca backline, suspect against pace, in prospecting the thrust of Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane.
Add in a touch of needle, with Phil Coutinho a probable starter keen to avenge his fall out with Jurgen Klopp and Suarez declaring a battle with “no mates” and there’s a recipe for a modern European classic.
For Klopp the tie, but perhaps the first leg in particular, is the greatest opportunity to demonstrate a tactical astuteness that often goes under the radar. Stifle Messi, Suarez et al in the wide open spaces of the Nou Camp and he can claim to be among the great strategists of management in tandem with his obvious talismanic managerial presence.
For the Liverpool players, having delivered nine months to remember, this is the thing that is still in their grasp.
The Reds have to beat Barcelona, not just to raise a sixth European Cup in Madrid but to mark a phenomenal effort at home and abroad. And, should they do so the trophy will stand as a beacon to a season of unparalleled brilliance.
*Odds are subject to change
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