A miscued clearance, a low shot, Adrián slipping so he sunk to one knee as the ball skidded past him. With that, what was promising to be one of the greatest seasons ever enjoyed by any club was effectively ended, a masterpiece despoiled. Who would have thought that Liverpool, actually, had been flattering to deceive all along? Who would have thought that Jürgen Klopp, beneath the lusty thatch, would also have turned out to be a bald fraud?
They weren’t, of course, and he is not, but this is an exhausting age. Perhaps people were always like this and social media has merely exposed it, but it’s hard not to feel a sense of profound weariness surveying the reaction after a game like Liverpool’s defeat to Atlético Madrid. Not everything is absolute. Shades of grey do exist. Not every defeat brings the end of an empire. It is simultaneously possible for Liverpool to have had an extremely good season and for it to feel as though it is ending in anticlimax.
It is simultaneously possible for Liverpool to celebrate the (emphatic) ending of their 30-year title drought and still regard not winning a weaker than usual Champions League as a missed opportunity. It is possible to play quite well in a game and still lose. It is possible to fail to win a couple of things and still be a first-rate coach with a fine team and a functioning philosophy. It is possible to defend exceptionally well and still be quite fortunate to go through.
And, while we’re at it, it is possible to acknowledge the drama the away-goals rule brings while still thinking it a bad and arbitrary rule that should be abolished. And it is possible to celebrate Liverpool’s excellence, the intelligence with which they have deployed their resources, while questioning the financial structures that allow teams to rack up 95+ points in a season. And it’s certainly possible for those financial structures to exist and to be reprehensible and for the first four sides through to the knockout stage of the Champions League all to be clubs who have never previously won the competition.
It’s that final point that makes this feel such a missed opportunity. With the possible exception of Bayern – and even they will be without Robert Lewandowski for at least another two to three weeks – none of the superclubs are anywhere near their best. In as far as such judgments can be made, this Champions League looks as weak as any in at least a decade. The giants are not as tall as they have been in some previous seasons. A relative outsider – or Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City – may become the first maiden winner since Chelsea. It’s opening up as 2003-04 did for José Mourinho’s Porto – although only, of course, if you come from one of Europe’s big five leagues from where, lest it be forgotten, all the last 16 came for the first time.
Liverpool fans at the beginning of the season would happily have taken winning the league, in any circumstances. A record points tally – six wins from their final nine games would equal the 100-point mark Manchester City set in 2017-18 – is still possible. And yet for the final two months of the season they will effectively have nothing left to play for. It is not to demean their success or to deny their excellence to point out that that will be an oddly limp ending.
And it can hardly be denied that Liverpool’s form has dipped recently, not only since the winter break but arguably since the turn of the year, for all that their string of victories continued. Maintaining the sort of level they achieved in the autumn over the full course of a season is probably impossible. And yet Liverpool on Wednesday, particularly in the second half, probably played as well as they have since the win over Leicester on Boxing Day. There was pace and penetration, there were chances created, there was intelligence and that relentlessness that characterises them at their peak.
The details went against them. Sides less adept at defending, less used to withstanding sieges, than Atlético might have wilted but they had the resilience to keep clinging on, to maintain their shape, even as the shot count mounted against them and the xG suggested the game should have been long since done. Jan Oblak was brilliant, there was the Andy Robertson header against the bar, those two weirdly scuffed finished from Roberto Firmino … and of course, ultimately, there was Adrián’s error. On a small muscle in Alisson’s hip, a season hung.
To blame everything on Adrián, though, would be both unfair and misleading. Really this was a tie that was decided in the first leg. Losing 1-0 left Liverpool vulnerable to the away goal. And that was a defeat that had its roots in Liverpool’s oddly lethargic start, the way they allowed Atlético’s antics to rattle them and the general dip in intensity that seemed to follow the winter break. Liverpool did more than enough at Anfield to overturn that setback but it was in Madrid that it was made possible.
That is the nature of knockout football. Good teams lose even when playing well. It can happen. This is still one of the best teams and this has still been one of the most memorable seasons in Liverpool’s history. It’s just not going to be quite as great as it seemed at one point it might have been.