What is a great season? What is a failed one?
Is it enough for Liverpool to win the Premier League for the first time in 30 years, a prospect that now seems mathematically inevitable? Or do the Reds need to repeat as European champions as well?
It seems churlish to expect both, given the inherent difficulty and rarity in accomplishing either.
But after Jurgen Klopp’s transcendent side lost its unbeaten status in the league to relegation-curious Watford two weekends ago, the goalposts were somehow moved on its Champions League expectations. Without an undefeated domestic campaign, a round of 16 elimination in Europe suddenly felt intolerable on the back of consecutive Champions League finals.
Liverpool knew this was real prospect going into Wednesday after a narrow first leg loss to Atletico Madrid. And after Gini Wijnaldum scored in the first half and Roberto Firmino seemingly won the game in extra time, another comeback victory seemed ordained.
But four minutes later, Marcos Llorente scored for Atleti. He would soon score again, and Alvaro Morata polished things off with a goal of his own for a 3-2 win on the night, 4-2 on aggregate.
Adrian’s crucial mistake helped lead to Llorente’s first goal (via Turner Sports):
Llorente’s second was well-taken and all but eliminated the reigning European champions:
Two hours earlier, in the pelting Liverpool rain, a splendid game had broken out.
After recording no shots on target in Madrid, Klopp knew his side needed another miracle-adjacent performance to advance – something almost akin to last year’s 4-0 home win over Barcelona in the semifinal, overcoming a 3-0 first-leg deficit. Because a one-goal deficit against Atletico is like being behind or three or four against an ordinary defense.
“If you play predictable, Atletico’s defense will defend you for the next six months without a rest,” Klopp said of Diego Simeone’s defensive specialists, per the Guardian. “We have to show we learned from the first game. If you are afraid of going out, you cannot play with freedom and we need this freedom – we need to play free.”
As a generational attack faced a legendary defense, there was a palpable thrill in two sides doing what they excel in, Atletico’s near-impenetrable organization opposite the Reds’ swooping runs and transitions and deep crosses.
Just seconds in, Atletico’s teenage mega-signing Joao Felix played Diego Costa through with a splendid diagonal ball, but the striker missed the target. After a finely poised first half hour, it was mostly one-way traffic towards Jan Oblak’s rain-soaked goal.
Roberto Firmino very nearly slid Trent Alexander-Arnold’s deep cross past Oblak but couldn’t get enough toes on it. But Gini Wijnaldum delivered the desperately needed equalizer just before halftime.
Alexander Oxlade-Chamberlain reach the back-line and found Wijnaldum wide open by the penalty spot with his cross. The Dutchman sent a strong, bouncing header into the net:
The second half quickly turned into a quest for Liverpool’s winner. Little by little, the pressure built as the clocked ticked and ticked. A Mohamed Salah shot. A Sadio Mane chance. An Oxlade-Chamberlain attempt from distance.
Another Salah finish was blocked and skipped up for Andy Robertson, who nodded it against the bar from close range.
Seconds before the end of regulation, Atleti’s Saul Niguez headed in what looked like a second goal in two legs from a free kick, but it was rightly disallowed for offsides.
It was an omen, even if a Liverpool winner seemed a matter of time once the game resumed in extra-time.
And the Reds actually got a winner. On his third major chance, Firmino finally scored just a few plays into extra-time. Wijnaldum managed to source the energy to make a long run up the right flank. He swung his cross to Firmino, who nodded his header onto the post but was quickest to his own rebound and dinked it into the empty net.
Four minutes later, Adrian’s mistake hit, and Llorente and Atleti stunned all of Anfield.
That ended Liverpool’s bid to reach a third straight Champions League final. And that started the discussion about what this means for the Reds’ once-historic season, which has rapidly unraveled – or partially, at least.
In the end, a first-in-a-generation league title will have to make do. Because Liverpool was nearly perfect, as Klopp had instructed them to.
Nearly perfect, until the 97th minute, that is.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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