Liverpool had it.
The stats were so lopsided that a scoreline of 5-0 would not have been out of place by the end of regulation. Yet, somehow, the ball seemed bewitched, and the resolute Spanish defense could not be breached after Gini’s headed opener (in itself marvelous). Stats, however, don’t win football games. Goals do.
And so, as the game went to extra time, there was a sense that maybe this was one of those days in football, where one team dominates, but loses; a win, if you will, for the little guy. Except today the little guy was from Madrid. There was a moment around the 70th minute when Angel Correa sort of clattered intentionally into the back of Virgil Van Dijk, seconds after the latter released the ball to Adrian. It was a foul, worthy of a yellow card for unsportsmanlike behavior, but more relevant is how it seemed to reflect the game at large. See, the size difference between the two is so dramatic, that it just ended looking a bit like a gnat being brushed off one’s shoulder.
What is going on with the Liverpool front-line, then? Is it really that the opposition has broken the code, and Klopp has to reinvent things yet again? It doesn’t seem that way. Liverpool got plenty of excellent chances, and it seemed like lack of concentration, primarily on the parts of Sadio Mane and Bobby Firmino (Salah was lively and generally excellent), combined with a tremendous performance from Jan Oblak, that led to enormous waste. Still, when Bobby finally did score, requiring a lucky bounce off yet another post, it looked all over. Surely Atletico were done. They did close to nothing the whole game up to that point. Why should things change now?
Enter super-sub, man-of-the-match Marcos Llorente.
His first goal was a direct result of a momentary drop in concentration by the Reds’ reserve keeper. His second was the result of a similar drop in concentration due to – and there is no way to say this nicely – the demoralization clearly felt by the merseyside defensive unit following his first hit. In normal footballing terms, it could be easily understood, as Liverpool had worked very hard to produce that second goal, and to be pinned back two minutes after that had to come as a shock. But we have become accustomed to this team not being normal at all, so much so that even after Atletico improbably drew level, I was watching the game just knowing that the lads could bounce back and score two before the final whistle.
Instead it ended in a loss, at Anfield, to an inferior team that came in knowing exactly what they wanted to do, and how they wanted to do it. A team who caught Liverpool in a bad spell that can be attributed partly to how easily everything has come for them in the premier league this year. And so the fairy tale of Liverpool’s incredible season has shrunk yet again following the exit from the FA cup, and those mentality giants came down to a very nervy, very human level.
It’s a loss that hurts, for sure. There was no good reason for Liverpool not to make a third champions’ league final in a row, at least not the way they were playing before February. Instead, all they have to play for now is the premier league title, which may very well be theirs by the end of this month. Klopp has spoken plenty about the immense load on his players. Maybe they will get a longer-than-expected rest after all, as we may see the team rotating heavily in April and May.
So… when does next season start?