Four English teams in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and two of them – Man City and Liverpool – miles ahead of everyone else in the league, boasting two of the top-10 best points tallies after 30 games in the Premier League era, and up with the best in the whole of English football.
In all the hubbub of title challenge talk, it’s been almost easy to forget that Liverpool went into this game just a few (admittedly tough) wins away from winning the Champions League. Including Bayern tonight – ruthlessly despatched 3-1 without the Germans really having a shot of note across both legs – Liverpool maybe only needed to win three or four games to lift old big ears. Indeed, you can even reach the final with just draws if the higher-scoring ones are away, and of course, win a final on penalties after a stalemate. From here on in you don’t need to muller teams.
Indeed, it might have been more had Mo Salah gone down when tripped in the box instead of trying to stay on his feet (obviously the fact that he was not given the clear penalty shows just why strikers usually go over under any sort of contact – the only people who can sort that are the referees, by calling fouls as fouls, especially when the advantage is lost).
To win both of the biggest trophies would be unthinkable with a squad that costs so much less than the European power elite, but it’s also easy to forget how much progress has been made in such a short space of time. Jürgen Klopp inherited a mediocre Europa League side, and maybe that’s being generous to the state of the team he was bequeathed; and just over three years on, it’s a team that can compete for the league title whilst simultaneously facing teams as strong as PSG, Napoli and Bayern before the quarter-final stage, and able to beat them all – without any blowback (yet) on the league form.
They are three of the best 15 teams in Europe, and all are out.
But of course, as my research (outlined in some recent pieces) shows, the league games after the quarter-finals and semi-finals are where Premier League teams often drop the most points, in part due to the hectic turnaround time, and often because Big Six clashes are scheduled in between. If it ends up with either Liverpool or City drawing Man United or Spurs it might get harder still, with the battle those games would be. And what would another Liverpool vs Man City quarter-final be like?!
Whilst the further you go in the Champions League the more likely you are to see some league drop-off, it’s not mandatory. That said, if the Reds had gone out I’d have taken solace from the fact that it would probably have helped with the league campaign; but beating Bayern 3-1 on their turf will have its positives, too. And for all the logic, sometimes you just have to go for the win, game after game, and see what happens. Nights like this are what football is all about.
Maybe Jürgen Klopp can magic some way to make this season even better; even if there’s still the likelihood of being in a Champions League final, a title race and back in the Champions League quarter-finals within 10 months could still result in an empty trophy cabinet. But if anyone can’t see the progress, and the utter brilliance of the journey, they’re either blind or batshit insane.
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