Liverpool have been for long giants slouched under a glass ceiling. The 0-5 win vs Porto could be as important for Klopp as Enter the Dragon was for Bruce Lee.
Now, you must remember, the enemy only has images and illusion, behind which he hides. Destroy the image and you break the enemy. (Shaolin teacher to Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon)
In 2012, FC Porto defeated PSG in a Champions League match at the Estádio Do Dragão. Current Bayern boy James Rodriguez scored the winning goal, and ran over to celebrate with the Porto fans. Photographed among the roaring fans was the shadow of a spectre, attired from the mid-1900s: long coat, a comb-over, pointy collars, and a black tie. Estádio Do Dragão is one of those cauldrons in the world where even the spirits of dead men rise on Champions League nights.
The fifty-thousand-seater stadium is a figurative hall of mirrors to any opponent, disproportionately exaggerating their flaws. The home team plays around them, like a twirly-mustachioed villain with a dagger, intermittently prodding. Or like a Portuguese vampire bat nibbling away on the heel of an unsuspecting chicken. Both appear only on the edge of glances, until the opponent is bled dry. Now, imagine eleven of them cleverly disguised as footballers – that’s the modus operandi of Sérgio Conceição’s FC Porto.
Unbeaten in twenty-four games this season, Conceição has continued the cloak-and-dagger tradition made famous by Jose Mourinho. The visiting Liverpool side were expected to be jotted in history books as another giant slain, among other dignified names. But as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City found out, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are no thumb-twiddling schmucks.
As I write this, 48 hours have passed since the final whistle, and I shouldn’t be feeling the hair on my arms stand up. But I’m a Liverpool fan and it’s been nine years since I’ve seen what I’d gotten used to seeing: Liverpool in the Champions League’s last 16.
Gerrard’s howitzers, Finnan’s crosses on a platter, Sami Hyypia’s towering headers, Hamann’s hammy nonchalance, and John Arne Riise’s buccaneering runs – sights and sounds preserved in the amber of our memories – were reanimated as thunder clapped, heavens parted, and the winds pissed in Porto, with appropriate special effects. The production value was high, as were the number of goals.
It all started, like it usually does these days for Liverpool, with Roberto Firmino pinching the ball from a Porto player, with all the table manners of a hammerhead shark. It was in that moment that the pecking order in the European football food chain was established. Porto might have appeared in 22 Champions League campaigns, only behind Real and Barcelona, but it was Liverpool that showed the larger appetite.
In the first half, Mo Salah skip-roped the ball over goal-keeper Jose Sa twice to score (I’m not yet emotionally equipped to describe the goal to you, but I’m getting paid, so let’s do this): An ellipse arrowed from James Milner’s right boot deflected off the far corner. Mo Salah, made of swirls of sand and wind, sprung like a Sphynx. Right foot, boop, left foot, boop, head, boing, left foot, stab. The goalkeeper felt like the sticky air between a beach ball and the nose of Pedro the juggling seal at Seaworld: a nonentity.
Known for his sense of humour, Firmino scored in the 69th minute with a spank of the boot. In the shadows, Bobby was dropping sandbags and opening trap doors. He was the manifestation of measured malice. He was the phantom-in-chief of Porto’s soon-to-be-burning opera. On a night such as this, Jurgen discovered that his team contained more than one sleeper-agent.
Porto’s left-back Alex Telles’s left foot smokes cigars and plays the djembe in its leisure. He has accounted for 17 assists for his team since 2016, and is generally unbottleable. Liverpool’s 19-year-old right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold, had the genie by its tail.
Elsewhere, the spirit of Steve Finnan was puppeteering the frame of Andrew Robertson; Gini Wijnaldum played with deep-seated anger for humanity and a scowl (as if someone whispered, “360,000 blue whales were killed in the 20th century” into his ear); Jordan Henderson flexed his armband, and Sadio Mane was finding his verve.
Mane glided on grass and trapped the ball like a tarantula with skates on and scored twice (25th, 53rd minute). When the end drew near, his foot met the ball with all the forceful finality of a killing-floor knocker’s sledgehammer coming down on the side of an unsuspecting cow’s head. That was Mane’s third, Liverpool’s fifth, and Porto’s largest margin of defeat in their den.
A scarcity of miracles has parched our throats. It has made us less sure of ourselves when we sing our songs of defiance.
This 0-5 win has been nine years in the making. Grown men teared up by the end of the night. They’d tell you it was the pissing wind that got something in their eye. They would be lying. It was February 14th and these were men falling in love again.
Liverpool fans, admittedly, suffer from philosophy – romantics imprisoned in self-reflection. They have been resigned to an unceasing comparison with their glorious past, undermining their present progress. They have been, for the longest time, giants standing slouched under glass ceilings.
Towards the end of Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee was lost in a maze of mirrors. It was an epiphany from the past that made him break the mirrors to find his nemesis and a way out.
For the longest time, Liverpool have been their own worst enemy. This win at the Estádio Do Dragão (Stadium of the Dragon) could be Liverpool’s epiphany.