This article featured as the cover story for this month’s Onside Inzaghi Periodical.
‘Is this the worst result in Barcelona's history?’ was the opening question at Ernesto Valverde’s press conference. Three up after the first leg, players were rested with La Liga won but it was not enough. After the same question was asked by some last season following a similar collapse in Rome, Lionel Messi, newly anointed captain, addressed the Nou Camp and spoke of redemption and of recapturing that “lovely and desired cup.” Having carried his teammates to the verge of their second successive double despite an unwaveringly fixation on Europe, the greatest player ever broke down in tears in Anfield’s away dressing room. Their real goal, his goal, that the club chased so feverishly had gone.
The Spainsh press answered their own question. Sport called it the ‘greatest humiliation in history’ and explained Barcelona had ‘written their blackest page.’ Marca deemed the loss a ‘historic failure’ and El Pais “a monumental failure”. While Liverpool may be superior to Roma but “what makes it hurt more is that it happened again,” Valverde admitted. Despite signing a new contract in October, it now seems likely Valverde will leave at the end of the season. Despite domestic domination and, probably, a second double.
Conversely, as every commentator, pundit and newspaper pointed out, although “we’ve seen so many magical nights at Anfield” the ousting of Barca may have been the best. However, given how Liverpool imposed themselves at the Nou Camp, enjoying more shots, more possession and more corners, the comeback in itself perhaps wasn’t wholly surprising, but the manner of their win certainly was. Without Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino, and with Origi who, despite some important goals of late, has been abject in the past, not at any point during the six intervening days did it seem on.
Jurgen Klopp’s giddy observation that his team were “fucking mentality giants” has, pivotally, been the case for some time; for both Klopp’s team and Mauricio Pocheittno’s Tottenham. While many mentioned, including Pochettino after Spurs overcame their own three goal mountain in Amsterdam, that neither comeback was down to ‘tactics’ per se, but rather a result of will, of mentality. While Klopp, Pochettino and Pep Guardiola also are downright tactical nerds, the main gift they give their players is courage. Not necessarily the cliched ‘winning mentality’ but a mindset that breeds confidence and positivity while encouraging their players to be bold despite suffocating pressure.
In could be argued that the three men have aided the underlying current that has dragged English football back towards prosperity, domestically, internationally and even at youth level. All three have placed faith in young, often home grown players, their positive and empowering management has re-wired long entrenched ideas of mental frailty and the timidness seen at international level. That is where both games were won this week. Barcelona, unable to manage their lead, cowered under Anfield’s aura, feared in Spain after the club’s dominance of the 70s and 80s. Ajax meanwhile whitled as Tottenham imposed themselves after half time.
Lucas Moura best summed up what faith in talent and the skill of giving that talent the mindset to improve can accomplish, alongside a nuanced tactical understanding. Despite always contributing to a club with the exact opposite attitude in Paris, Lucas was never trusted, eventually marginalised and cast out under Unai Emery through no fault of his own. But it was his glorious hat trick that put Spurs through, at a stage PSG have never reached under QSI. One they so desperately crave, that Lucas Moura wasn’t deemed necessary to reach.
Both Klopp and a tearful Pochettino referred to their players as ‘heroes’, but, thanks to their managers, those players have humbly believed that idea for some time.
by Adam White