Danny Makkelie stood there in the middle of the storm, rain pouring down around the referee, and put his finger in his ear. It was not easy hearing the words coming down the wire, and still less the moment they saw him.
The game was 28 minutes in but it already felt like Next Goal Wins and while it seemed certain Porto would score, it was Liverpool who did. Only they did not. Only they did again. Mohamed Salah provided it, Sadio Mané scored, and the linesman took it away again. Then Makkelie gave it back. As soon as the Porto fans filling the dragon’s den saw him do that gesture, they feared he might.
Porto had wanted to take the free-kick swiftly and get rolling again, not allowing the momentum they had built to slow, but Makkelie stopped them. Mané had appeared offside, clearly so, but upstairs they were having a look. A routine check, repeated at every game and after every goal, something new for football to get used to, justice served at the cost of spontaneity. There are reservations about VAR, and this is one of them: the time taken, the emotion too. Among the Liverpool fans the celebration died quickly, resigned to losing the opening goal.
But the referee put everything on hold. Porto’s fans whistled; they whistled because they knew what this might mean. And so, inside the stadium, they waited. Eventually, the referee drew a screen and pointed to the centre circle. Liverpool’s fans celebrated and although it was not the same on delay, the wildness gone, they had the lead, as good as through. Porto’s fans fell silent, stunned.
Soon Porto fans sang again, and loudly, but it was different then, more homage than hope. Salah’s second confirmed Liverpool’s passage and the roar that greeted Éder Miltão’s header soon after was one of recognition. Roberto Firminio and Virgil van Dijk made it 4-1, 6-1 on aggregate, making the scoreline appear more routine than it was while also underlining just how strong, how resilient and how varied this Liverpool team are. How difficult it will be to eliminate them, too.
Mané had done it again – this was his 14th goal in 17 games. And, yet again, it had been the first. The opener and effectively the winner, silly though that may sound when four more goals followed. It was over and Porto could barely believe it. Until then the comeback was on. Jürgen Klopp had warned Liverpool were not through despite the 2-0 win in the first leg, and if few believed that at first, and if few imagined it by the end, they soon saw he might be right.
Jesús Manuel Corona, Moussa Marega, Danilo, Pepe, Miltão, Héctor Herrera, Yacine Brahimi, Alex Telles. That is not the Porto lineup; it is the list of players who had chances before Liverpool scored, the shot count starting after 33 seconds and rising fast, the noise rising with it. Marega had four of them, a player who did everything well except shoot, amassing a catalogue of scuffs. When Salah escaped up the left and found Mané, Porto had 13 shots to Liverpool’s one. The scoreboard said 0-1. By the end it said 1-4. Ultimately, it was comprehensive.
It had not always seemed likely. Porto had rolled over Liverpool, who were hacking the ball away. Alisson was whistled every time he had the ball, accused of wasting time already. Van Dijk had been forced to intervene. At that stage, every time they cleared Porto came back again. Nobody said it was easy, but it was not supposed to be this hard. But then Liverpool resisted, which they often do, and they defended which they do too, a team with a resilience and a powerful sense of purpose. And with their first real attack they broke through. These were nervous minutes, but they were over. So, here they were, still standing. And on the verge of the European Cup semi‑finals.
There is something about Liverpool that makes them different to every other team in the competition this year. Even here, some of the attention appeared drawn to the league, perhaps at least partly reflected in the absence from the starting lineup of Firminio, whose place was taken by Divock Origi – the striker who had played 54 minutes in the competition this season, only 317 minutes in the league, and had not begun a European game since the 4-3 win against Borussia Dortmund, three years ago.
It was not a rest, Klopp said, and on the face of it there is something vaguely absurd about the implication that Cardiff are more important than the Champions League. But in virtually the next breath Klopp suggested it was partly about rest and that decision perhaps says something about Liverpool’s search to finally win the league, 29 years later, an entire generation has yet to see them lift the title that once seemed to be theirs.
Which is why in the bars of Porto the debate was no such thing: no one in red doubted that, given the choice, they would take a league title over the Champions League. Maybe only for this year, maybe only to end that wait, but they would. Yet maybe that domestic obsession has hidden something that, for any other team, might be even bigger: that they could yet win their sixth European title, that if they do make it to the Wanda Metropolitano it would be their fourth final in 14 years, and that no one has appeared in more. On Wednesday night, Liverpool slipped into the semi‑finals of the European Cup.
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