Liverpool have to take their defeat in Barcelona on the chin.
The Reds played some outstanding football worthy of Europe grandest setting but ultimately came up short. As the sun set spectacularly over the Catalan hills, the blinding glare of a memorable season gradually darkened with the Spanish skies.
The lights of an epic campaign aren’t entirely out yet, just on the lowest setting of a dimmer switch.
At the Nou Camp, there we were up in the Gods, and among them. Lionel Messi is the greatest to ever play the game and it was a privilege to witness him at work in his den.
But, a privilege earned by Liverpool’s exponential progress as a European force, on a par with the days we began taking for granted under Rafa Benitez.
The irony now is that Rafa is the man who might snuff out the last flicker atop the candle of hope. Liverpool go to Newcastle with a staggering 91 points in the bag, though perhaps for the first time accepting that another six won’t be enough.
Manchester City’s navigation through the choppy waters of Spurs, United and Burnley has everyone fearing, nay expecting the worst. Whether overturning a three goal deficit in Europe or hoping for a last spiral in the league, the vogue feeling is that a miracle is required.
First Liverpool must win at St James’s Park for that wonder to take shape.
Throwing off the exhaustion and psychologically draining Nou Camp heartbreak to beat Newcastle won’t be easy. Benitez, though a confirmed Liverpudlian, is a proud football man, obsessive about his work and sufficiently cold blooded to harbour thoughts of denying Jurgen Klopp the chance to win the title he himself craved as Liverpool manager.
Newcastle’s players and fans, in the final home game of the season and free from fear, will want to go out with a bang.
Footballers are strange beasts and for many who will never experience the thrill of a title chase, playing a vicarious part in its destination is an acute, peculiar motivation. Klopp and his players must expect a driven opponent.
Happily, maybe eerily, the same goes for Brendan Rodgers and Leicester City’s footballers, some of whom have felt the joy of being League Champions and understand enough about the sacrifice and effort that is required to win a title to play with honour at the Etihad.
Rodgers, like Benitez – possibly even more so – has unfinished Liverpool title business. To be the man who missed out cruelly by hair’s breadth in 2014 and the one to tip the balance back Liverpool’s way five years later will be a supreme irony not lost on Brendan.
Rodgers deserted Celtic because the lure of a return to the Premier League was too great.
He’ll be realistic enough to know that winning the League for Leicester is a pipedream, albeit one miraculously realised by Claudio Ranieri. His prime incentive instead will be getting one over on his most lustrous peers and Pep Guardiola is at the top of that assembly.
For any of this to work, belief has to be at the core of Liverpool’s mindset on the banks of the Tyne on Saturday night. This thing can still happen; the season too rich a kaleidoscope for it to end without one last deviant twist.
At the very least, the Reds have it in their power to ensure the presence of a Premier League trophy sits in the bowels of Anfield on the last day.
The presence of Benitez and Rodgers as men who can shape Liverpool’s destiny is an intriguing sub-plot at the end of a long and winding road. If this title race was a novel the plot’s denouement is still the turning of a few critical pages away.
As our hands quiver thumbing through the final leaves, we must decide whether the author is a warped fan of death by a thousand cuts or some bluff old romantic who walks with destiny, faith and hope in his heart.
*Odds are subject to change
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