Even as the years since their last major title keep rolling, Liverpool keep riding on hope and belief that one day it will all come together.
It was April 13, 2014. Liverpool were hosting Manchester City. The winner would be in full control of winning the league after the 34th game week.
Imagine that. Liverpool winning the league.
The teams were tied 2-2 as the clock crept past the 75th minute. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a winner, after all. Glen Johnson meandered to take an innocuous throw deep in City territory in the 78th minute. The throw landed straight on the head of a light blue shirt—Johnson was about as accurate with his hands as his feet.
The ball fluttered harmlessly towards Vincent Kompany’s normally reliable right leg, with no imminent pressure. But he sliced his clearance towards the middle, and not very far away from danger.
Philippe Coutinho was quickest to react. Running away from goal, he swiveled his hips and absolutely smashed a bouncing ball into the bottom corner.
The camera soon fixated on Kompany’s face, who admirably succeeded in trying to hide the anguish of his miscued clearance landing right on Coutinho’s magical right boot. I wouldn’t notice that until watching replays later, mind. I was too busy canvasing my too-small-for-activities dorm room, guided by the kind of optimism only a freshman in college can have.
That was the first time I allowed myself to jump off the ledge, gliding irresponsibly towards the haven for dreamers: “Holy shit,” I said to the room but mostly just to myself with the purpose of speaking it into existence. “We’re gonna win the fuckin’ league.”
Of course, as we all know, Liverpool didn’t win the fuckin’ league.
Four seasons later, in the same fixture, on January 14, 2018, all-conquering Manchester City came to Anfield having dropped only 4 of a possible 66 points to start the season. Ensconced as champions-elect by December, City weren’t looking back at mortal rivals, 15 points adrift on match day. Instead they were chasing ghosts: looking to do Arsenal’s Invincibles one better.
Plus, fighting on four fronts, the quadruple was not simply just on the table, it was on their plate. Pep Guardiola insatiably looking on with fork and knife in hand.
Liverpool, meanwhile, were embroiled in a scrap for Champions League places. They, alongside Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham were at the kids table fighting over chicken nuggets and mac and cheese with plastic forks while City devoured devouring a steak.
Arsenal had already been bullied off the kids table, looking for an adult to complain to.
The game provided a brilliant launching pad for fans. Within the opening whistle, I couldn’t help make noise alone in my living room. No more dorm room. Surely, now, there was more room to celebrate if things went well, or too much room to wall myself off if things went poorly.
Anfield did their best, too. What an atmosphere it was. It was clear to everyone watching behind whichever screen they preferred.
Nine minutes in, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—Oxinho!— gave fans plenty reason to twist and shout, beating Ederson at his far post. For a second, Ederson’s smiley face neck tattoo turned to a frown. Celebrations were joyous, but I hoped this wouldn’t be a classic case of scoring too soon.
After a Leroy Sane equalizer before halftime, the first 10 minutes of the second half was covered in light blue. It appeared, indeed, that Liverpool scored too early.
Then, Roberto Firmino put them ahead with the kind of goal that personified a Brazilian who was nurtured in Germany and England: an intelligent run behind, a physical barge to beat the center back off the ball followed by the most elegant of finishes around Ederson, off the post and into the net.
Celebrations were exuberant, but there was too much time left. Liverpool knew it, too, returning to their press from the kickoff, at the instruction of Jurgen Klopp. They won the ball back, Mane took aim from 20 yards out, beat Ederson but smashed the post—for a second, his smiley face neck tattoo showed a few nervous drops of sweat on its forehead.
Shit. That was it. That was the chance to bury Pep’s belligerent City, had it been five inches to Mane’s left. Surely, I thought, Liverpool would rue that chance.
Yet, somehow, rue they would not. Klopp’s Liverpool kept going and within a minute of hitting Ederson’s left hand post, Mane tried his luck at the right. This time, it was five inches the correct side of the post. Bang. 3-1.
Before there was time to truly conceptualize what was happening, what team Liverpool were storming off the pitch, Mohamed Salah picked up an errant Ederson clearance and lobbed it into the net from distance. For a second, Ederson’s smiley face neck tattoo evaporated, wanting nothing less than to be dissociated from the neck it had been destined.
City scored two goals late on, but the referee charitably blew the whistle without giving City one more chance to tie it up. Liverpool had won 4-3. Arsenal’s Invincibles remained on a perch of their own.
With Salah’s deft lob over Ederson, were memories of Coutinho beating Joe Hart four seasons ago. The ball bounced into the net, unlocking the madness that had accompanied Coutinho’s goal.
Can this team do something special?
But, wait, am I making too much out of a January league game that saw us move into a tie for third place by the end of the weekend?
You know what? Who cares if I am.
Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool team that finished second in 2013/14 was pushed by the indefatigable Luis Suarez, the shockingly injury-free Daniel Sturridge and the resurgent Steven Gerrard. The team was, simply put, wholly entertaining. There’s no disputing that.
So is Klopp’s Liverpool. Blood-pressure raising, 9 out of 10 doctors wouldn’t recommend, pure, uncut, captivating football.
Suarez, Sturridge and Gerrard have passed the figurative torch to Salah, Firmino and Mane. The supporting cast is much better, and Virgil van Dijk is a better center back than a combined Martin Skrtel and cult hero Kolo Toure were that season. The full backs are vastly superior and the midfield is even better suited to pumping up the bass.
Another similarity between the two sides: no one saw them coming.
There was no rational reason for rivals to worry about Rodgers’ Liverpool preparing the turbo. They had finished seventh the season prior and it looked as if Suarez would leave. But by Christmas, they were being taken seriously.
This season’s version of the team is still being overlooked in Europe. Despite being on an unbeaten run reaching back to October in all competitions, no one is talking about them as even a potential dark horse for a Champions League run.
Sure, they’re not Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona or PSG, but on any given day they can beat (or be beaten by) any team in the world. They’ve proved that time and time again, for better and worse.
That fantastic 2013/14 returned Liverpool to where they belonged: Champions League. Except their participation in that competition the next season was a cruel mirage.
Technically, it was Liverpool playing in the Champions League. But it had nothing to do with the magical 2013/14 iteration that led them there. Suarez had laid teeth on human flesh (again), and was sold. Sturridge grew much too familiar with the treatment table. Gerrard, with only the ghost of Mario Balotelli’s potential and Rickie Lambert’s deadly three-goals-in-36-appearances-season to aim forward at, saw his form drop sharply.
With the minimum six games guaranteed, Liverpool were dumped to the Europa League at the hands of Basel, despite Lazar Markovic’s best intentions. Besiktas kicked Liverpool out of Europe completely after the minimum two games guaranteed there.
Thus, as far as I’m concerned, this year is the first time this decade that Liverpool have qualified for the Champions League.
Fans did have a test-run of what a mystical ride through Europe on the Klopp Autobahn might be like when he steered the club through the Europa League in his first season on the job.
Many were indifferent to the Europa League, especially considering the lackluster performances Rodgers had overseen before Klopp’s arrival. But Klopp, as he does, turned the mundane to interesting—like trying James Milner at left back.
Klopp guided the team to a narrow first place finish of a group that should have been won easily. The round of 32 draw saw Liverpool play Augsburg, which didn’t exactly excite anyone. Another narrow escape ensued, 1-0 over two legs.
This is when the draw would start spitting out games that the Europa League organizers could only dream of: Liverpool vs. Manchester United in the round of 16.
Liverpool progressed, thanks in part to another wonder-goal from Coutinho. Fans were fully on board now, and the Europa League organizers got yet another gem: Liverpool vs. Dortmund.
This fixture was the only other time that those Coutinho inspired feelings coursed through my veins, the kind that only a delusion love of Liverpool can imbue. In that magical second leg against Dortmund at Anfield, four: second half goals saw Liverpool overcome a three-goal deficit, culminating with Dejan Lovren nodding home the winner in stoppage time.
There, too, I prematurely allowed myself to canvas the ridge between sanity and euphoria.
I selectively believe in the phenomenon that is destiny, whenever it fits the narrative I suppose. During the post-match body high, I could only conclude that it was Liverpool’s destiny to win the Europa League. How could a team that had just completed this miraculous comeback be undone by Valencia, Shakhtar Donetsk or Sevilla over the next two rounds?
Firmino leaving Roberto Soldado in a bodybag with a roulette in the semi-finals, one of those indistinguishable moments that Firmino produces in big games, combined with Sturridge’s outside of the foot wonder-strike in the final, in all its disrespectful temerity, was only a confirmation of that destiny.
Perhaps that notion of destiny was in my head. In a lovely book called Stumbling on Happiness by the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, he writes the human mind exploits ambiguity for gratification as well as that the brain agrees with what the eye sees, only because the eye looks for what the brain wants.
My brain wanted that to be the confirmation of destiny.
Of course, again, Liverpool were undone by a second-half Sevilla onslaught in the final. Within 45 minutes, a trophy, and Champions League qualification, disappeared. The realization of having to wait (at least) another year for Klopp’s Liverpool to challenge Europe’s elite swept over and drowned the fanbase.
Thankfully, it was just the one season that Liverpool fans, and fans of enthralling football, had to wait for Klopp’s gesticulations to be presiding over Europe’s best competition again.
And worth the wait it was.
Around the corner, lifted by the post-City win delusional hope, Liverpool will play Porto in the round of 16.
But if you’re counting at home, two of the best visceral feelings Liverpool have given fans this decade has led only to heartbreak. Now the 4-3 victory over City has entered that rarified air.
Have I learned nothing? Have we learned nothing? In the fast-paced modern-day life, is it yet another case of Recency Bias? It’s possible. It’s also possible that it is my brain’s defense mechanisms mobilizing its forces to cloister me from the pain that quickly occupies the space that hope inevitably flees.
But also, perhaps we’re just one magical Champions League series away from thinking: “Holy shit, we’re gonna win the fuckin’ cup.”