The doors are locked, the belts buckled as Liverpool FC head for the Magical Mystery Tour of AS Roma – the tunes of The Beatles’ album epitomising the spirit of their city. A preview to the match that could make or break The Redmen, and wonders if Klopp’s lads can continue to showcase the utopian drive.
In a season where the respective top leagues in Europe have drubbed the fans with their predictability and dominance, the European stage has offered a treat for one and all, upholding the narrative often associated with the sport of football, that this is anyone and everyone’s game. Draped in togas and crowned by the public recently after their victory in Stadio Olimpico, conquering the Goliath of FC Barcelona in its own den, AS Roma made their trip from the Eternal City to the city of Liverpool to extend their campaign and further their cause, hopeful and rejuvenated. What unfolded next in this semi-final of the highest order can only be condensed through an account of a lop-sided excursion, unraveling the truth at the confluence of skill and confidence.
The town of Liverpool has been at the heart of modern-day culture for more than half a century, ever since a certain Scottish man breathed life in its cultural football club and four young enthusiasts of music and mop tops took the centre stage. The Beatles, the four men called themselves. Rewinding the clock fifty-one years back, their album Magical Mystery Tour had hit the record stores, spreading the sense of psychedelic utopianism around the globe like wildfire. If Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Club Hearts Band was a blueprint for the Beatles’ reflective vision of the world, the Magical Mystery Tour project was an attempt to translate that idea into reality — something which Liverpool FC succeeded in doing years later at a stage worthy of the original Fab Four’s contribution to the world of music.
Lit with flares, flags and fan huddles, Anfield was where all the eyes were at, and making good use of the occasion, it reminded the Romans of the past as one of the banners on display declared “Bring On Yer Roma By The Score”. The Serie A outfit may have shut out teams like Chelsea FC, Atletico Madrid and most recently, FC Barcelona and not have conceded at home in the Champions League this season, but they were yet to face a team as feisty and fervent as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool FC — a taste of fury and focus that tormented the sophisticated Manchester City very recently. The anticipation for the tour was matched with the display of a deep red whirl of malevolent action, after taking its time in the game’s initial stages which was marked with half-chances and scares from both sides, with left wing-back Alexander Kolarov playing a major role. Hitting the crossbar from 30 yards and getting involved in a tackle that ended Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s afternoon, and unfortunately, his season, the Serbian tested the home team’s resolve.
Klopp’s men found the spark to their engine after kick starting for more than half an hour, after Sadio Mane made the entire Kop gasp with his near misses in a matter of mere minutes. For all of Di Francesco’s tactics of playing three at the back and two wing-backs to solely concentrate on the opposition’s prized assets with the help of two defensive midfielders, he couldn’t surely decode the undecodable — like John Lennon’s interpretation of the Walrus. Like an usual suspect, Mohamed Salah manifested the powers of the ancient Egyptian Gods in his left foot and put his hands up after scoring out of respect, announcing the arrival of the Red Zone in the tour. With the midfield entirely shutting off the Roma outlets, the Egyptian Walrus had more freedom than he had in his life, making the defenders run like pigs from a gun, as he doubled his tally by chipping over the goalkeeper after a joint venture by Roberto Firmino’s assassin’s eye and Mo Salah’s blurred feet to make Juan Jesus go back to Brazil and analyse his life’s choices.
“The past is a beast. The past is cruel, with long nails. Roma found it suddenly on top of her, flesh torn by ‘Mo Sala’, as they call him here. He is the worst nightmare they feared, and which arrived punctual as anything. It was like being caught in a story written by Stephen King, who had been sleeping badly due to indigestion, and who got up to start writing instead.”
— Maurizio Crosetti, La Republica
What facilitated this first half onslaught of magic and mystery of the front three of Liverpool were the fools that formed the backbone of the team, with the captain Jordan Henderson putting in the performance of his life, nicking every second ball and playing it to the final third, eventually making the bearded lion of a captain of the Roman side, Daniele De Rossi, hauled off after the hour mark. The same Daniele De Rossi who had so easily devoured Ernesto Valverde’s midfield in the quarter-finals three weeks back.
Meanwhile, the fifty-four thousand in attendance that night, witnessed a sheep jumping over the moon as the impossible happened at the rejoice of every football fan with a heart out there — the ever boring James Milner overthrew the likes of Neymar and Wayne Rooney to become the single most incisive creative player over the course of a single season in Champions League history with an accurate set-piece destined for the back of the net. True to the words of Lennon-McCartney, both the Britishers personified the song The Fool on the Hill — staying silent and doing their job for the team restricting the midfielders even to send out a SOS to the attackers in front of them.
The Roman defenders on the other hand were duly eviscerated, humming the words of Blue Jay Way, pleading at times to their midfield compatriots to not be long to help them put a stop to the mystical haze of the Liverpool FC front three, with Roberto Firmino leading them throughout the game. Creating five chances, assisting two goals and almost knocking the Egyptian’s head off of his body with a phantom kick of a celebration, the Brazilian reasserted the fact that he’s the one that Tite should be playing in Russia in two months time. His two second half goals turned his tally for the season to 27 goals and 15 assists, which in its own right is a world class achievement, unfortunately overshadowed by the frilly haired enigma they call Mo Salah and his obscene goalscoring mission to overtake Ian Rush’s long standing record for Liverpool FC.
What can only be described as a ninja dressed in cargo shorts to a wedding, having no care in the world, Firmino’s passes and contribution in the final third are often overlooked because of his speedy compatriots’ habit of saying both “hello” and “goodbye” to opposition wing-backs in an instant. Klopp’s men took responsibility on their shoulders to echo the past and made Anfield a field of strawberries where people often fall back to, getting lost in happy thoughts, for almost an hour. Although just like its concept, happiness is but a fleeting emotion, as Dejan Lovren left the door ajar with a miscalculated jump towards the final ten minutes of the game, allowing Edin Dzeko to put the ball past the hapless Loris Karius, the German keeper still benumbed by his Croatian compatriot’s judgement, reminiscent of his performance against Tottenham Hotspur FC back in October.
Soon, the oft nightmarish crumbling mentality popped up in everyone’s heads to provide AS Roma with a second goal from Diego Perotti’s finely placed penalty, after the Giallorossi took the reins of the game in their hands and pressurised the Scouse defence, resulting in an unfortunate James Milner hand-ball just outside the six-yard box. The tickets to Kyiv were suddenly put on hold, as the two away goals plunged the Anfield faithful into mental chaos turning a night of glamour and grandeur into that of sweating foreheads and shaky legs. The full time whistle blew, and the entire city heaved a sigh of frustration.
But what should not be forgotten is that Liverpool FC had one of the most memorable European nights in recent memory on 24th of April, not just for the Kop but for neutrals everywhere, and the climb to the top of the mountain after a decade long trek has been commendable. Barring an almost impossible feat of escapology from the Italians inside their own den this Tuesday, the Redmen will expect to reach the finals for the first time since Carlo Ancelotti and AC Milan’s sweet revenge in 2007. It’d be wrong to assume that this magical mystery tour began just three days back, as it had been in motion ever since the teenage wonder, Trent Alexander-Arnold put his free-kick into the back of 1899 Hoffenheim’s net at the start of the season.
With testing times ahead, an injury depleted squad, the race for qualifying for the Champions League still on and the trip to Rome still left, the team needs to adhere to the routine of listening to All You Need Is Love in the dressing room, to maintain the belief that has got them so far. AS Roma will be waiting to pounce on them with all their might and rejuvenated attitude, and to feel content and complacent as if it’s the end of the tour would be a mistake as grave as selling Mohamed Salah for only £34.3 million, because a wolf in its own den knows how to hunt and maul its prey on its own turf. What the heavy metal team needs to do right now is not to forget about strumming the chords even after their déjà vu of a performance against Stoke City, dropping two points in their quest for Champions League qualification next season, in turn taking a hit on their concentration levels. Liverpool FC need to shake off the feeling of being done and dusted, and treat their upcoming trip to Italy with paramount interest in their road to consistency after a drought of half a decade.
Qualifying for the Champions League two seasons in a row and progressing into the finale of the same competition is something like a song that everyone’s mother should know, and to provide the same opportunity to the progeny, they should maintain the confidence culminated at Anfield a week back and cross over the finish line — at least for the wounded Sean Cox’s sake. Facing Chelsea in the penultimate game of the season in the league does invoke memories that aren’t fit for the utopianism, the Kopites are aiming for — so ironically, they should be treating each game regardless of the opposition as a cup final. Practice does make a man perfect, and hopefully, Jurgen Klopp can set himself to the tune of victory and nonchalance.
At the end of the day, it’s only half-time and Liverpool FC are leading by five goals to two, but they have got to carry on with the same belief that The Beatles tried to instill in their fans almost half a century back. Keeping in mind that they came and they saw and they got conquered, the German gaffer and his men have to remain confident of their own talent and passion and remain seated with fine composure and surges of madness in the tour bus to see it to the end on their road to Rome to clear their path to Kyiv next month. The Italian job is not yet done, and the only way of achieving it would be to sing through and overpower the Olimpico, much like the four men with mop tops who had influenced one generation after another. Just another ninety minutes of drive and determination will see the legend be cemented, of how the team from North West of England played beautiful football and defeated a team that has already beaten the mighty FC Barcelona – and who sit in wait for the slightest hint of blood in the air when the Reds roll into town.
So, roll up… roll up for the mystery tour.