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Liverpool Has a Date With Destiny After a Magical, Nonsensical Night at Anfield

With the Champions League and Premier League trophies still in reach, Jürgen Klopp’s team is poised between unbelievable heights and excruciating depths. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

A photo illustration featuring Liverpool players celebrating Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Somehow, at the end, I don’t know how, it makes no sense, but then life is occasionally like this, you think you know what to expect, and just at that moment the whole world explodes in fireworks. But somehow, there was Mohamed Salah, moments after the final whistle, standing in front of the Kop in a T-shirt that said “NEVER GIVE UP,” singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” along with 55,000 people all sharing the same out-of-body experience, 55,000 people whose minds were collectively 500 feet over Anfield. There was Salah, who hadn’t played in the match, but who’d done everything to help Liverpool reach it, singing at the top of his lungs and dancing for sheer joy, somehow providing the most dramatically resonant image from a game in which he hadn’t kicked a ball.

The emotional opulence of Liverpool, its ingrained sense of its own grand destiny, is sometimes an irritating quality. But there are moments when restraint would be perverse. Liverpool came back from a 3-0 first-leg deficit against Barcelona—Lionel Messi’s team, the era’s defining superclub—to win the second leg 4-0 and reach the Champions League final. Having witnessed that, how are you supposed to process your experience except by clinging to your neighbor and weeping and bellowing show tunes? And somehow, because this is Liverpool, Salah, the club’s best player, was on hand to give a face to the collective apotheosis.

Liverpool v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg
Jürgen Klopp celebrates with Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

I don’t know how it happened, but life is occasionally like this. Occasionally, Barcelona will come out sleepy and with no urgency, and play the game like a coder debugging software: Maybe we should probe over here; maybe there’s a weakness there. No? Oh well. And occasionally Liverpool, missing two of the world’s best strikers—Salah, who’s in the concussion protocol, and Roberto Firmino, who’s out with a muscle injury—will play with such positive fearlessness that an insurmountable 3-0 deficit doesn’t seem so insurmountable after all. And occasionally, it won’t be.

Sometimes the world explodes in fireworks. I don’t know how it happens. Given the depleted state of Liverpool’s squad, it didn’t make sense when Divock Origi scored in the seventh minute. It didn’t make sense when Georginio Wijnaldum scored twice in 122 seconds to level the tie at 3-3 in the 56th minute. It certainly didn’t make sense when Trent Alexander-Arnold seemed to back off a corner kick in the 79th minute, only to run up and take it when Barcelona’s defenders moved off their men, sending a low ball to Origi at the edge of the 6-yard box. You thought you knew what to expect, but like Barcelona’s defenders, you didn’t: Origi got the ball unmarked. His shot blazed past Marc-André ter Stegen and into the net. 4-0. And at that point, if you had even the slightest affinity for Liverpool, your mind went 500 feet high.

Never give up, Salah’s shirt said. And Liverpool didn’t. Make no mistake: They crushed Barcelona. This wasn’t one of those desperate, last-ditch, hold-on-and-pray sort of wins that sometimes happen when a weak team beats a very strong one. Liverpool had played about as well at the Camp Nou as you can play while still losing 3-0, and at Anfield, they deserved every inch of the 4-0 scoreline. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp loves what he calls heavy metal football—physical, all-action, defenders and midfielders flying everywhere—and that was how Liverpool played Tuesday night. We used to joke that gegenpressing, Klopp’s signature tactic, looked like tiki-taka with the boring parts stripped out; Liverpool made Barça look tepid and theoretical, like bad critics reading a good book. Barcelona’s besetting weakness—like Roger Federer’s at times, and like Spain’s when the 2010 World Cup–winning team was starting to come apart—has always been a tendency to double down on its own serenity, to become quieter, slower, and stiller in the moments when it needs to get louder, more direct, and more ruthless. Patience beats chaos, but often in sports, the most beautiful patience will struggle to beat an equally beautiful rage.

This is a Liverpool team that does nothing by halves. Even its survival in this form feels like a kind of miracle. Way back in 2015, when Klopp was hired, it felt as though Andrew W.K. had been hired to steer the Titanic. Klopp—a freewheeling, touchline-leaping, guitar-strumming, hair-transplant-getting, cool-glasses-wearing avatar of football fun—seemed to have no inner affinity for the culture of Liverpool, the most grandly tragic club in world soccer. I remember admiring the audacity of the pairing. I also remember thinking it might be a good idea to quietly put down $50 on the iceberg.

It wasn’t that Liverpool was unfamiliar with the idea of fun. Fun had occasionally been allowed to take place in or near Anfield. Peter Crouch, a known enthusiast of both dancing and nachos, played for the club. So did Steven Gerrard, who, though he was rumored to have expressed his love for Phil Collins mostly by beating up DJs who refused to play “Sussudio,” did exhibit a certain fun-curious instinct by loving Phil Collins in the first place. Still, Liverpool’s normal emotional key was too exalted, too destiny-haunted for fun to have much purchase. For reasons both profound (the Hillsborough disaster) and terrible (Bob Paisley’s sport coats), the Reds were the club of undying memory and eternal flames, of heads held high in storms, of full-throated mass melodrama. The Kop oscillated between Miracle of Istanbul–style triumph and utter desolation; what use would it have for mere enjoyment?

What was Jürgen Klopp doing within 50 miles of Merseyside? Klopp had merrily driven his unheralded Borussia Dortmund side (which, OK, did feature Robert Lewandowski) to two Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final. He was a good manager, no question. But he also reacted to big moments by whipping out roundhouse kicks on the touchline. He was brash, funny, unselfconscious, maybe slightly mad. You could imagine him as a smirking grasshopper in Alice in Wonderland. He seemed to thrive on not taking soccer too seriously, while the word “seriously” was not serious enough to describe how seriously Liverpool took it. When you put these two gloriously exaggerated, apparently incompatible essences together, what would be the result?

We now know the answer to the question. Somehow, incredibly, Liverpool and Klopp intensified each other. The team is more Klopp than you’d ever have thought possible, while also being more Liverpool than ever before. Over the past four seasons, Klopp has transformed Liverpool into one of the most fun, most likable, most gifted, and most purely enjoyable soccer teams on the planet. And this season, that fun, likable, gifted, and purely enjoyable team seems hellbent on making every twist in its story as operatically over-the-top as possible. Every big win is a euphoric triumph over plausibility. Every downfall—say, the likely outcome of the Premier League title race—is the most heartbreaking result this side of a Stark family barbecue. Other clubs have comebacks; Liverpool has 4-0 vs. Barcelona to reach the Champions League final. Other clubs have near misses; Liverpool, if the matches this weekend go as seems most likely, scores more points than Manchester United has ever scored in a season and still finishes second in the Premier League … by one point. The way to combine Kloppian fun and Anfieldian melodrama in one team is to run soccer through an amplifier that starts at 11.

I don’t want to jump to any conclusions about the Premier League title race. A miracle could happen. Manchester City, winner of 13 straight Premier League games, might drop points on Sunday to 17th-placed Brighton in the final game of the season, though if God means to let Vincent Kompany start blatzing in long-distance golazos, you have to think the odds are grim. An incredible European double is still possible. But right now, Liverpool seems poised between unbelievable heights and excruciating depths. On the one hand, the greatest club of the pre-Premiership era, which hasn’t won a title since before the Premier League was formed in 1992, falls short by the narrowest possible margin; it’s the plot of a horror movie. On the other hand, a team that trailed Barcelona by three goals comes back to win the Champions League; it’s the plot of an epic poem. There’s no middle ground. It makes no sense. But somehow it does, because this is Liverpool.

And for that matter, maybe “if the matches this weekend go as seems most likely” is a ridiculous thing to say where this club is concerned. This is Liverpool. When did anything go “as seems most likely”? As Klopp said after Tuesday night’s match: “That was beautiful. I told the boys before the game it was not really possible, but because you have the mentality of giants we have a chance.” You think you know what to expect, but the only way to know what will happen with Liverpool is to wait and see what they do. Maybe you’ll see a night like last night. Maybe Salah will show up, leading an out-of-body experience in the world’s most perfect T-shirt. I don’t know how it happens. But never give up, because life is occasionally fireworks.