Liverpool’s season has taken a surreal turn. It could soon get even stranger.
Little more than three weeks ago, when Jurgen Klopp took his runaway league leaders to play Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the knockout round of the Champions League in the Wanda Metropolitano, the campaign appeared to be a straightforward march to glory. The 1-0 defeat in Madrid was the start of a run of three losses in five games and was both unexpected and disappointing. It is hardly a calamity. A dip in form when a team is 25 points ahead in the table with just nine games to go is almost inconsequential.
Winning the Premier League and ending 30 years without a title was always the primary target this season. That job is all but done. Retaining the Champions League would be a bonus.
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The relatively poor performances over the past few weeks could rebound on Atletico. Diego Simeone’s team frustrated and out-thought their opponents in the Spanish capital and their gamecraft antagonised Liverpool’s players and fans. They could always expect a hostile reception at Anfield tonight but the defeats by Watford in the league and Chelsea in the FA Cup add another ingredient into the volatile mix: fear. The Kop is always at its most frantic and influential when there is doubt in its collective mind. Klopp would never let the players become complacent but the crowd can tend towards smugness.
It would be easy for supporters of the Club World Champions, the champions of Europe and champions-elect of the Premier League to dismiss a loss to a workmanlike Atletico as an aberration that would be easy to reverse at home. Yet the setback at Vicarage Road to an efficient but even more ordinary Watford implanted a little doubt. That uncertainty should alchemise into a firestorm of malevolence directed towards the Spanish side. The nights Anfield really comes alive are when Liverpool are up against it. A raw, unnerving power has echoed through the old ground down the ages and there are enough examples from the past five years to underline the impact of the crowd. Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and, last season, Barcelona can attest to how the atmosphere saps visiting teams’ legs, drains their conviction and makes even the most comfortable leads – 3-0 in Barca’s case – unprotectable.
There is another element at work, too. The football authorities in the UK have sensibly taken advice from the chief medical officer and the sport continues to function almost normally in the face of the Covid-19 threat but stadium closures in Italy and Spain are a worrying portent. The pressure to play games behind closed doors will mount if the rate of coronavirus infection climbs. By the time Liverpool’s next home game against Crystal Palace arrives in 10 days’ time the situation could be very different. There is a possibility – however small – that the Atletico game could be the last time Anfield is filled to bursting point this season. Kopites imagine that once the title is secured the home matches will develop into a series of parties. If this remarkable campaign coincides with the biggest health crisis in decades the remaining games could be played out as anodyne televised spectacles in front of empty blocks of seats. The Kop will roar tonight just on the off-chance it is their last opportunity to do so this season.
Stadium shutdowns would be the only way the campaign could end in anti-climax. Exiting the Champions League would not undermine any sense of achievement on Merseyside. The team’s combination of pace, tactical adaptability, directness and mental strength – not to mention superior levels of skill and fitness – has placed them among the best sides in the club’s history. In the past 15 months Liverpool have made outlandishly exceptional performances seem normal. It will take time and more perspective to judge this team properly. In the sweep of week-to-week life it is too easy to take them for granted.
It is likely that Liverpool’s latest European adventure will continue. Atleti played above themselves in the Wanda, where their workrate and discipline were their strongest qualities. Klopp’s men underperformed as a group and let the antics of the home side distract them. There was no zip to Liverpool’s passing. That should be different tonight.
One of the defining characteristics of Klopp’s team is the way they feed off the fervour of the crowd and, in turn, perform in a manner that jacks up the volume in the stands. That frenzied circuit of energy has destabilised better teams than Simeone’s.
The Kop will be buzzing tonight. It is possible that coronavirus may close it down before too long but Atletico will not be able to subdue Anfield or Liverpool.
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