UCL - Final PreviewMay 28
A point to prove, squad players stepping up and defying regularity - The blueprint for an ‘Anfield on European nights’ miracle
In collaboration with The Athletic, BTSport.com assesses all the ingredients to a famous Anfield comeback on European nights with input from those who’ve been present.
From Steven Gerrard’s “oooohhh ya beauty” against Olympiacos to supersub David Fairclough’s winner against Saint-Etienne, from Liverpool 5-4 Borussia Dortmund to Trent Alexander-Arnold’s quick corner against Barcelona, Anfield has produced some miraculous moments in European competition.
‘Anfield on European nights’ has become so ingrained into football’s psyche that it’s developed into a cliché. Yet clichés are clichés for a reason and Liverpool’s famous stadium has produced the unthinkable so often that the extraordinary is now regarded as the regular.
It’s why so many Liverpool fans will watch tonight’s Champions League quarter-final second leg with Real Madrid, exclusively live on BT Sport, with hope bordering on expectation. Forget that it’s Real Madrid, 13-time winners of the European Cup, and that Liverpool are trailing 3-1 from the first leg. This is Anfield on European nights.
The Athletic have spoken to those who’ve taken part in some of Liverpool’s greatest European nights and ask just what are the ingredients for an Anfield miracle? To read the article in full, and lots of other great football content, claim a 30-day free trial through www.theathletic.com/btsport.
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Before Jurgen Klopp’s men defeated Barcelona 4-0 in the 2019 Champions League semi-finals, Liverpool had only overturned a two-goal first-leg deficit in a European tie once before.
That was against Auxerre in 1991 in the UEFA Cup second round, when Graeme Souness’ Liverpool had tasted a 2-0 defeat in Burgundy.
“Everybody wrote us off,” defender Nick Tanner, who played both legs against Auxerre, tells The Athletic. “Nobody gave us a chance because no Liverpool team had ever come back from a two-goal deficit.”
As for the deafening Kop end, who pride themselves on roaring Liverpool to victory on European nights? “Nobody turned up,” says Tanner. “Well, about two-thirds of the crowd turned up [23,094 is the official attendance count].
“But in a way that made it better because we actually won, it was like giving something back to the crowd that was actually there and supported us.”
On that occasion in 1991, an early goal helped settle Liverpool’s nerves. Steve McManaman was brought down inside the opening five minutes and Jan Molby stepped up to score from the spot.
“I think an early goal is huge,” Ray Houghton, who played in the second leg, tells The Athletic. “That really gets your momentum going and it also puts the seed of doubt into the opposition. I think all of a sudden they start thinking: ‘Whoa, they are not that far away.’”
Mike Marsh would make it 2-0 inside half an hour before Mark Walters’ strike with seven minutes remaining sealed the Anfield comeback.
One of Liverpool’s most memorable comebacks in recent memory came in the group stages when Rafa Benitez’s men found themselves needing three goals without reply against Olympiacos in 2004/05 to progress to the knockouts.
Florent Sinama-Pongolle scored just after half time, Neil Mellor netted with nine minutes to go and Gerrard unleashed an unstoppable strike three minutes on to seal Liverpool’s progression and set the Reds on the path to Champions League glory that season.
“The big thing is not conceding in the first half going into the second,” Stephen Warnock, on the bench for Liverpool against Olympiacos, tells The Athletic. “A clean sheet is huge but it is trying to make sure you are in a position with 20 minutes to go that can change the game.
“Even if you score in the 70th or 80th minute, you are putting nervousness into the opposition and that’s when anything can happen. Their nerves kick in, they are not as composed, they are not as calm.
“You need your top players to be performing well and believing they can win it. There has to be a belief in the changing room that you are capable of winning the game.”
Unlikely heroes invariably play their part too. Marsh’s goal against Auxerre was his first for the club. Mellor and Sinama-Pongolle, who both netted against Olympiacos, were squad players that season. Likewise with Divock Origi in 2018/19, who scored twice in the absence of Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino to pave the way for Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona.
“Substitutes are huge too,” adds Warnock. “They need to impact the game. They need to watch closely and know that if they do come on what the flaws are in the opposition and what it is they are being asked to do by the manager.”
“I remember I saw the free-kick from Rivaldo [which put Olympiacos 1-0 up and left Liverpool requiring three goals to advance],” Sinama-Pongolle tells The Athletic.
“On the bench, we all kept believing. As a player when you are on the bench the fact that you are closer to the fans helps you believe.
“I am a very ambitious guy and would always think, ‘Am I able to change this game, am I useful for this team?’.
When you are on the bench, the fact you are closer to the fans helps you believe
- Florent Sinama-Pongolle
“I was young and there were obviously more important players in the squad than me but I knew it was a matter of every day in training.
“You know every day in training when you are doing well, you are feeling good and if you have a chance you have to take it and that is exactly what I did. Rafa Benitez too, he believed in me and I was happy about that.”
Two minutes after his half-time introduction, Sinama Pongolle pulled one back from Harry Kewell’s cross and set Liverpool on course for victory.
“It was Origi in the Barcelona game,” Houghton adds. “This happens quite a lot if you look at big games — it is not always the big players who produce it. There are occasions when someone who is less likely than others is the one that comes up trumps.”
Liverpool’s Champions League success in 2005 was built on togetherness, unity and belief. Benitez’s side were outmatched for talent by many of their opponents that season – Chelsea, Juventus and AC Milan in the final – but possessed the team spirit to drive themselves to victory.
“Every team that wins the Champions League, it is because they have a proper team spirit. Not just because they have famous players,” Sinama Pongolle continues.
“When we won in 2005 we weren’t the best team in Europe but we had the best work unit. That’s what you need.
“We had so many leaders in the squad. We had Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Didi Hamann, Sami Hyypia. They were all big influences. That influence can’t just be on the pitch, it has to be off the pitch as well. This is how you create the turnaround.
“We turned the [Olympiacos] game around in 45 minutes but that work was months and months in the making. There was a good bond between the young and old players and when you mix all of that it made us stronger and able to come back.”
The elephant in the room is that this time Liverpool have to do it all without the Anfield crowd, who’ve played such key role in the club’s tradition of spectacular comebacks.
“As soon as I came on I remember looking around and thinking the atmosphere looks amazing. I was right, the fans and the stadium played a big part in how we turned the game around,” Sinama Pongolle recalls of the Olympiacos match.
Warnock adds: “It is very difficult without the crowd because when you walk out at Anfield and you have that crowd you get that sense of, ‘We are here to help you out’ — it brings so much more out of you.
“I have seen teams crumble in the tunnel at Anfield in Europe when they hear the roar. When they walk out you can see their fear, when they pick the ball up for a throw-in and are being jeered, they can’t cope with it. Their absence is something that will help the away team out massively.”
Yet even without the famed Kop welcome and even given Liverpool’s miserable home form this calendar year, Jurgen Klopp will be quietly hopeful the same group of players who produced against Barcelona can overturn a smaller deficit this time around.
The German will be desperate to ensure Salah’s away goal proves to be crucial rather than a mere consolation.