Mon | Nov 29, 2021

Hubert Lawrence | Football’s beautiful uncertainty

Published:Thursday | May 9, 2019 | 12:00 AM

The beauty of sport is its unpredictability. It’s why we watch. It’s why the world was enthralled by Liverpool’s turnaround victory over FC Barcelona in their European Champions League semi-final on Tuesday. Conventional wisdom had the Catalans consolidating a 3-0 first-leg lead and advancing to the tournament final in Madrid, home of its main domestic rival, on June 1. With Lionel Messi majestic in the first leg and rested for the return game, that prediction made sense.

Yet, there was always a glimmer of hope for Liverpool. The club’s history is filled with brilliant comebacks, made possible by the fighting spirit embedded in its football culture. The most famous of them all came in the 2005 Champions League final in which a half-time reshuffle by coach Rafa Benitez, and a fantastic performance by captain Steven Gerrard, repaired a 0-3 deficit. Then, the Reds finished that storied Istanbul job, and defeated a mighty AC Milan team on penalties.

That history goes all the way back to the 1977 European Cup, when Liverpool came from behind to beat St Etienne of France 3-1 in the third round. When you match Liverpool’s spirit to Barcelona’s demise last year in the Champions League, the possibilities become evident. Roma had been soundly beaten 1-3 at the Camp Nou, the home of Barcelona, in the quarter-final first leg, but came back with a 3-0 win at home.

Stunning similarities

The similarities between the Roma comeback, and what happened at Anfield on Tuesday are stunning. Possession, that most misleading of football metrics, favoured Barcelona 57/43 in both games, but in each case, the winners led on shots taken, shots on target, and corners. Here’s the comparison: Shots taken 17-9 for Roma, 13-8 Liverpool; shots on target: 6-3 Roma, 7-5 Liverpool; and corners 6-3 Roma, 7-6 Liverpool.

Did Barcelona come to these games with its collective foot off the gas, assured that a big first-leg margin would suffice? Did ferocious home support in the Stadio Olimpico, Roma’s home, and at Anfield, batter and bruise Barca into a meek performance? Since these identical disasters have happened twice in a row, these are questions Barcelona must answer.

That aside, some credit must go to Liverpool goalie Allison, who made critical saves for the Reds on Tuesday. One denied Barcelona hitman Luis Suarez and another snuffed out a rare chance for the prolific Messi.

Ironically, Suarez played a role in the victory for the team he represented before moving to Barca. His foul on Andrew Robertson presaged the entry of Georginio Wijnaldum, the Dutch midfielder, whose 2 goals made all the difference.

Liverpool pressed Barcelona high up the pitch and, for the most part, kept Messi away from their goal and the team’s hustle paid dividends. Beyond the tactics composed by coach Jurgen Klopp, this big comeback will be the case study for motivational speakers everywhere.

With Desmond Dekker and the Aces chanting You Can Get It If You Really Want in the background, the message will be simple: When faced with adversity, fight.

Think about it. If you could predict the result of games with 100 per cent certainty, you’d be rich … but bored. Fans probably wouldn’t fill the 54,000 seats at Anfield to watch what other sports might deem a dead rubber. We go and watch because we know that nothing is certain and improbable comebacks can happen.

More simply, we go because some games, like Tuesday night at Anfield, are sheer inspiration.

Hubert Lawrence has made notes at track side since 1980.