So here we are, two days away from taking our place in the biggest match in club football. Considering that Liverpool weren’t even in European competition last season, to get to the Champions League final upon their return to the tournament still seems remarkable three weeks after we booked our place in Kiev. We’ve already played 14 matches to get to this point, so what have been the key moments along the way? I’ve picked out six pivotal games that have helped take us to the brink of glory.
1: Hoff we go!
At the beginning of the 2017/18 season, Liverpool were not assured of their place in the Champions League proper. Back in August, there was first the banana skin of a play-off to negotiate, with Hoffenheim representing tricky yet beatable opponents. The Reds won the first leg 2-1 in Germany, but the competition first-timers showed enough in that game for Kopites to be a tad apprehensive about the return at Anfield.
Inside 21 minutes, any nerves had been pretty much eliminated. Two goals from Emre Can either side of a first (but certainly not a last) for Mohamed Salah extended Liverpool’s aggregate lead to 5-1. Can’s second was a beauty, the German midfielder finishing off an intricate attacking move at the Anfield Road end. A slight unease returned in the 28th minute when Mark Uth scored for the visitors and wasn’t dispelled until 63 minutes when Roberto Firmino netted a tap-in against his former club. Sandro Wagner registered a late goal for Hoffenheim but by then it mattered not.
Liverpool maintained English football’s proud record of making it 12 years of unblemished success in the Champions League play-offs, returning to the group stage after a three-year absence. Hoffenheim could have been a real test but the flying start at Anfield more or less turned a potentially disastrous night into a cakewalk.
2: Seven against Spartak
Going into the final matchday of the group stage, Liverpool were the only English team not assured of their place in the last 16. They should have been over the line by the time they welcomed Spartak Moscow to Anfield on 6 December, but the relinquishing of a half-time three-goal lead against Sevilla two weeks earlier meant that they still needed victory against the Russians to avoid any chance of another group stage exit.
Spartak had drawn with the Reds and thumped Sevilla 5-1 earlier in the group, but they simply had no answer to Jurgen Klopp’s men on this night. A Philippe Coutinho brace and a further goal from Firmino had Liverpool three to the good inside 18 minutes, not decisive on the back of the collapse in Seville but the perfect way to soothe the nerves of the home crowd at Anfield. Sadio Mane added a fourth just after half-time, with Coutinho soon wrapping up his hat-trick on what remains his most recent Champions League outing. Mane made it six with a quarter of an hour to go and Salah rounded off the scoring to give Liverpool a competition record goal tally for the group stage. It was also the second time that the Reds hit seven in the tournament this season, having also inflicted a 7-0 thrashing on Maribor.
After failing to get out of the group on their two previous Champions League appearances in 2009 and 2014, it would have been catastrophic if the same happened to Liverpool again in 2017. Instead, this Russian romp meant that they won their group and would, in all probability, avoid heavy hitters in the last 16.
3: Orange crush
Five days after that win over Spartak, Liverpool were drawn against FC Porto in the last 16. It was expected to be a tough contest, but the Portuguese side were certainly not among the fiercest opponents that the Reds could have had – Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich had all been prospective opposition.
Liverpool made an inconsistent start to 2018 but travelled to the Estadio Dragao off the back of a comfortable 2-0 win at Southampton. If the visitors’ donning of their orange change kit against blue-shirted opponents was unexpected, so was the scoreline that would be racked up in Portugal’s second city. Mane opened the scoring on 25 minutes, partly thanks to a goalkeeping error from the hapless Jose Sa, and a superb close control from Salah allowed him to double the lead soon after. Porto almost pulled one back on the stroke of half-time, but instead it was Liverpool who added a third on 53 minutes, Mane capping an exquisite team move. Firmino’s shot from 20 yards effectively killed the tie with more than half of it still to play and Mane, whose form had come under scrutiny in the weeks leading up to this game, completed his hat-trick in the closing minutes.
Prior to the game, most Reds fans would have taken a score draw or narrow victory. Nobody in their right mind could have expected a 5-0 romp that made the second leg a formality. On Valentine’s Day, Liverpool produced romantic football to warm the cockles of the heart.
4: City outclassed at Anfield
With the second leg against Porto ending goalless, Liverpool proceeded to a quarter-final against Manchester City in early April, the two legs sandwiching a Merseyside derby to ensure that the Reds would face a pivotal seven-day period just after Easter. Pep Guardiola’s men went into the tie as favourites, but Liverpool had won the teams’ previous meeting 4-3 in an Anfield thriller in January.
The build-up to the first leg was sadly tarnished by morons throwing projectiles at Man City’s team bus, but once the on-field action started, the talk would be about Liverpool’s scintillating performance. Twelve minutes in, a close-range finish from Salah meant that the Reds drew first blood. On 21 minutes, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain unleashed a thunderbolt to double the lead. Before the clock struck 30, Mane scored from a Salah cross to leave City stunned and ensure that Anfield was rocking. There was widespread concern when the Egyptian King was subbed off with a groin strain early in the second half, while the Reds had to swap dashing for discipline if they were to avoid the concession of an away goal that could change the complexion of the tie. A superb defensive effort after half-time made sure of a memorable 3-0 win, with Liverpool giving their best performance of the season to date.
There was still the possibility of Man City overturning the deficit on home soil, but the Reds certainly found themselves in a dream position going into the second leg.
5: Pep’s bubble popped
A jaded Liverpool side eked out a goalless draw against a strangely subdued Everton less than 70 hours after the first leg win over Manchester City, who themselves were thwarted in their attempt to clinch the Premier League title after losing to crosstown rivals United despite leading 2-0 at half-time. Having thrashed Liverpool 5-0 when the teams last met at the Etihad, though, Guardiola’s side retained some hope of a seismic comeback.
Those hopes were ramped up inside two minutes of kick-off as Gabriel Jesus retrieved one of the three goals that the home side needed. Man City dominated the first half and had a goal contentiously disallowed for offside, with Liverpool looking nervous. Half-time came at a good time for Klopp’s men, but if they could pinch one goal, that would effectively kill off the tie. It duly arrived on 54 minutes, Salah keeping up his phenomenal form to beat Ederson and level the match. The fight went out of Man City thereafter and they would even fall to a second home defeat in four days after Firmino’s tidy finish in the 77th minute wrapped up a phenomenal 5-1 aggregate victory for the Reds.
Some feared for Liverpool ahead of the tie after what had happened to them at the Etihad early in the season. Instead, the Reds’ no-fear approach overwhelmed a fantastic team which would be crowned Premier League champions just a few days later.
6: Roma conquered
All that now stood between Liverpool and an eighth European Cup final was Roma, the most surprising of the semi-finalists. The Serie A side had been hammered by Barcelona in the first leg of the quarter-finals, but a stunning 3-0 win over the Catalan giants in the return took Eusebio di Francesco’s men through to the last four.
Liverpool were slight favourites but, with the first leg at home, they knew they would need a win and ideally a clean sheet to take to Italy. Unfortunately, just as in the previous round, the first leg was overshadowed by a pre-game incident, with Irish supporter Sean Cox viciously stabbed near the stadium. That obviously made on-field events trivial, but the Reds nonetheless produced a masterclass at a raucous Anfield. Roma had perhaps edged the first half-hour but two goals from Salah before the interval gave his former club an uphill task. That momentum continued into the second half and the visitors were outclassed by the rampant Reds, with Mane making it 3-0 on 56 minutes and Firmino adding two more to take Liverpool to the verge of the final. However, Edin Dzeko pulled one back late on and there was still time for Roma to receive a very charitable penalty which Diego Perotti converted.
Those two goals reignited the contest and ultimately the Reds fell over the line, having lost 4-2 in the Stadio Olimpico amid a chaotic second half display. However, for the magic they produced between minutes 30 and 80 at Anfield, they are more than worthy of their place in the final.