LIVERPOOL, England — Liverpool’s players stood in front of the Kop, those who had played and those who had watched, their heads shaking in disbelief, their arms draped over one another’s shoulders, as if they needed to hold on to something, anything, to make sure it was real.
In front of them, all around them, flags fluttered and scarves waved and spines tingled as Anfield sang its hymnal. The stands were still full. Barely a soul had moved. Nobody wanted to break the spell, to head out into the night. Nobody wanted the feeling to end.
In the corner, far away, Barcelona’s fans stood, too, doubtless desperate to leave, to escape, but with nowhere to go. Police procedure determines that traveling fans must stay behind until the home crowd has cleared, to reduce the risk of disturbances. It feels, at times like this, a particularly cruel form of torture.
Barcelona had suffered one of the most humiliating nights in its history, beaten, 4-0, by a Liverpool team that had lost the first leg of this Champions League semifinal by 3-0, and had arrived at this game more in hope than expectation. Liverpool’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, had asked his team’s fans to turn the evening into a “party.” He had encouraged his players that if they were to fail, they were to do so “gloriously.”
And now, after slipping to the most abject, most hollowing of defeats, now Barcelona’s fans found themselves trapped, shellshocked, forced to watch others revel in their misery, an agonizing glimpse of what they might have won, of what they thought they had.
As “You’ll Never Walk Alone” reached its key change, though, a handful picked up their scarves — or whatever they had to hand: a jersey, a banner, a Catalan flag — and held them aloft. More and more joined them, brandishing their club’s colors, or their nation’s, in defiance. Sometimes, there is nothing to do but succumb.
Barcelona’s season started, 10 long months ago, with Lionel Messi on the field at Camp Nou, a microphone in his right hand, his left slung awkwardly behind his back. Messi rarely speaks publicly. It is a tradition that Barcelona’s “first captain” gives an address on the eve of the campaign, though, at the exhibition game for the Joan Gamper trophy. That is Messi’s role this year, for the first time. So it was his job.
He had not told his teammates what he was going to say: they were expecting the usual platitudes. Instead, he made something approaching a vow. Barcelona had won a domestic double last year, he said, but fallen by the wayside in the Champions League: throwing away a three-goal lead in its quarterfinal against Roma. He and his team would do everything they could, he said, to bring that “beautiful and coveted trophy” back to Camp Nou for the first time in four years.
Though he described the Roma defeat as the “worst of all,” it is not Messi’s only regret. In an interview with Radio Catalunya this season, he picked out two years, in particular, that haunt him: 2010, when an Icelandic ash cloud and a José Mourinho-inspired defense saw Barcelona eliminated by Inter Milan; and 2012, when it found a way to lose against an injury-deprived Chelsea in the semifinals.
This was the year that Messi would lay those ghosts to rest: it was, he said, the “strawberry on the dessert.” For the first time, he willingly skipped league games so as to play in European matches; he has not played fewer minutes in La Liga in the month of April since 2013. He was saving himself, so he could save his team.
Barcelona’s season ended, effectively, on Tuesday night, in the tumult of Anfield, roaring and shaking with the ecstasy of impossibility. There is a league title already won, of course, and a Copa del Rey to add to it — no little solace at all, there; failure is always relative — but these scars will, nevertheless, take some time to heal, this defeat some time to process.
When Barcelona’s players had spoken, after their resounding 3-0 win in the first leg last week, of their respect for Liverpool, their awareness of Anfield’s fervor, it had been interpreted as magnanimity, a polite acknowledgment that there was a job to finish before the celebrations could begin.
It was not. The final moment of the first leg was a Barcelona counterattack, led by Messi, sprinting the full length of the Camp Nou field. He teed up Ousmane Dembélé for a simple finish: the fourth, the closer, the strawberry on the dessert. Dembélé missed. Virgil van Dijk punched the air. Messi collapsed on the grass. In that moment, Liverpool had its glimmer.
That was all Klopp’s team needed. The absence of the injured Roberto Firmino and, after a concussion sustained on Saturday, Mohamed Salah did not dull it. Nor did the reputation of its opponent, Barcelona’s lavish talent and its razor threat, or the scale of its task.
Liverpool tore at Barcelona: a goal ahead inside seven minutes, thanks to Divock Origi, the most accomplished team in Europe rattled and swaying and stuttering in the face of the onslaught from Liverpool’s reserve forward line.
Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal, never quite given credit for their grit and their grizzle, such is the élan of this Barcelona team, steadied things until halftime, but even they were swept aside at the start of the second: two goals in two minutes from Georginio Wijnaldum wiping out the visitors’ advantage. Anfield sensed blood.
By the time Origi scored the fourth — a brilliantly clever corner routine, orchestrated by Trent Alexander-Arnold — the goal that returns Liverpool to the Champions League final, that grants it a chance to avenge last year’s defeat to Real Madrid, all the color had drained from Messi’s face.
His eyes looked red, raw, distant, his skin ashen. No player in soccer history has turned so many games to his will, has so regularly taken control of his destiny. This, though, proved beyond even him. There was to be no moment of salvation, secured by his own hand, no deliverance, no destiny.
As the clock ticked down, as time ebbed away, he wandered the field, lost in his thoughts. His strike partner, Luis Suárez, carefully unwrapped the strapping from his wrist, tossing it aside, looking longingly toward the tunnel, edging ever closer to it. He was the first to disappear as the whistle blew, as it all ended, as a stream of Liverpool coaches and substitutes flooded past him on their way to the celebrations.
Messi followed, a moment later. He looked at the ground. He did not turn back. He said nothing as Barcelona’s coaching staff offered their condolences. Just before he disappeared from view, as Liverpool’s players poured into embraces and the stands melted, he offered the briefest, softest shake of the head, as if he, too, had not been able to believe what he had seen. Sometimes, there is nothing to do but succumb.